A Review of Jonathan Timm’s “Fever Dream”
What does it mean when a band pushes the “reset button” on an album, scraps all of the work up to that point, and starts over? Certainly there could be a lot of reasons for a move so drastic. It could be something as simple as the songs evolving over time, or something akin to a dramatic life change, like a death for instance.
Whatever the case, one must think such a maneuver brave; it takes a lot of guts for an artist to closely survey what they’ve made thus far and decide that it just doesn’t sit right. I also believe such a maneuver exhibits a clarity of focus and vision, a desire to reach a very specific end-goal even if that means turning back and starting from square one again.
I don’t profess to know why this was the case for this album (though, full disclosure: some of the members of this group are my close friends). But Jonathan Timm, a Michigan native and now a Nashville mainstay, has spent a few years recording, scrapping, and rerecording Fever Dream, and he clearly approached the debut album under his own name with a clear and uncompromising vision, because the result is one of the best and most emotionally cohesive albums I’ve heard this year.
As I mentioned in our song premier, Timm has spent the past decade or so in a wide variety of bands, veering between the folk-oriented to the more country-tinged but always remaining in that sprawling territory of rock and roll. As such, it’s hard not to view Fever Dream as his attempt at culminating those experiences, because it blends those tried-and-true genres together so seamlessly. Accordingly, there are pedal steel, acoustic, and electric guitars trading roles throughout, buoyed by the occasional orchestral arrangement or organ hum. Fever Dream seems to tread a lot of ground, ranging from the wry country duet “What You Believe” (with Carl Broemel of My Morning Jacket on pedal steel) to the dramatic slow-burn dazzle of “These Hours,” but Timm doesn’t allow the songs to wander too far off the range. His voice—full of warmth and vulnerability, often shifting to an emotive flutter—does a lot of the work in keeping the songs stitched together, as does the brash guitar wielding by way of Dylan Lancaster.
Thematically, Fever Dream explores two primary ideas: grief and romantic heartbreak. Notably, the album handles the two themes in an even-handed way, to the point where they are almost indistinguishable from one another, where sometimes you’re not sure whether the subject of the song is an ex-lover or ex-person. At a certain point, then, Fever Dream becomes an album simply about loss at its most acute, and the way such losses can restructure a life in fundamental ways.
These themes are pinned together by a recurring lyrical motif about a “hidden” darkness within and behind everything: feelings are conflicted by their own shadows, songs are haunted by old friends, actions are paired with their regrets, and relationships contain their end at their outset. The album is structured around these underlying shades and how they can come to the surface after some great loss. Opening track, the downright despondent “Belly of the Beast,” establishes this motif: “As I walk on/ from the dark edge of this cell/ my head held low.” “Gray and Gold” ruminates on “a darkness that dwells,” “Before I Let You Down” is about the darker sides of a bygone relationship , and “The Change” promises to “bury all this doubt/ in a deep hole of regret” because “honesty is a curse” shot through with its own undoing. That last song in particular features the most direct reference to the passing of MI-songwriter Pat Carroll (in an album full of them) with the heartrending refrain: “You fought on for so long/ but now you can breathe again.”
This all makes Fever Dream sound like a bleak and dismal affair, and it is. But the album pulls a brilliant reversal at the end with “Belly of the Beast (Reprise).” The song that originally opened the album—a minor-key moody piece of near-ambiance—is converted into a bubbly, soaring, major-key closer. This has the effect of revealing an underlying brightness to everything, a newfound optimism, a waking from the Fever Dream to morning light, perhaps even the acceptance at the end of grief. The switch happens so quickly that it’s jarring at first, but as a structural conceit it works so well that I was pleased to exit on a lighter note.
There’s something poetically resonant about Fever Dream’s narrative: an album about loss, riddled with death and heartbreak, which ended up losing itself for a while. It’s kind of amazing that Fever Dream made it through such trials and not only survived but blossomed into something grand and powerful. In the end, we can view Fever Dream as a testament to our own ability to make it through whatever life throws at us. We can take those losses and make something out of them.