It’s been four years since Canadian folk songsmith Sarah Harmer released her understated and quietly brash I’m A Mountain. In that time, she seems to have found and harnessed the simple joy of a cosmic marriage between pop song craft and wry, disarming turns of phrase.
Oh Little Fire is a perfectly packaged container for pop gems, and Harmer falls right in place in the midst of such a sugar-sweet and swooning backdrop. On I’m A Mountain, it seemed her aim was to shock and engage the listener, but here she’s the homespun songstress exuding a seemingly effortless magnetism.
Gavin Brown lends the same production polish to Harmer’s oft-whispered vocals that he’s done for Metric‘s Emily Haines. The backing band rocks harder, and the pace is jauntier, but Oh Little Fire still feels like a coffeehouse record in all the right ways. The only hints of Harmer’s countrified past come in the form of Silverado (a duet with Neko Case) and the closer, It Will Sail. Otherwise, it’s power-pop saturated in subtle beauty, on par with Laura Viers, Charlotte Hatherley, and the aforementioned Emily Haines.
The album opens with a declaration: “A new wind will blow through everything I know.” But Harmer’s is not necessarily a rose-coloured disposition, coupled as it is with often brutal confessions of hard-fought loneliness: “I was looking into every car, hoping that someone might see and look back.”
On the pounding Captive, Harmer sings, “I want to be held captive. Forget the way I acted,” but she spends much of the album’s lyrical expanse betraying the notion of captivity. On the dark and brooding New Loneliness, she sings: “Now there is just one pillow on the bed where a solitary someone lays her head,” and continues to muse on the sole companionship of a spider who inhabits a corner of her room.
The album’s musical and lyrical heart comes with the stunningly beautiful One Match, which is as close as any artist has come to genuine pop perfection this year. “If I only had one match left,” Harmer sings, “I would try to light it between us.” The chorus drops to a delightfully slow-motion half-time, and everything works, right down to the melody-mirroring guitar solo.
On Late Bloomer, she sings of true rumours and scattered leaves in the wake of a lover’s untimely departure. “I didn’t want to see it coming,” she admits, “I showed off my heart. Now there’s a scar in the shape of a question mark.” And, “I was waiting around to be played like an old piano.”
Oh Little Fire is an unexpected turn in Sarah Harmer’s musical progression, to be sure. But as such, it blindsides the listener with its carefully crafted and deftly executed sense of melody and meaning. Harmer sees the subtle nuances in life’s mundane moments; somehow she translates them from minutiae to revelations of cosmic importance. As Harmer sings in The City, she’s “keeping receipts of our lows and our highs.” Oh Little Fire should be counted dearly among the highs.