September 3, 2013
by Tjeerd van Erve
Music with the rhythm and timbre of prayer: whether it’s Low, At The Close Of Every Day, Luik, Wovenhand or Broeder Dieleman – I have a weak spot for it. Slow paced, low pitched and reflective, it colours the room with peaceful tension, burns and burdens the heart with doubt and resolve at the same time. That pace, that rhythm, is exactly what makes Ballads For The Heathens Or Dying so riveting.
On this record, Bart Van Der Lee departs from his strict protestant roots while burning what’s left of his broken marriage, which came to pass around the same timeframe. Indeed, Ballads For The Heathens Or Dying is an album filled with despair. Bart van der Lee adds shots of alcohol to his prayers, seemingly drinking from the same bottle as Tom Waits as he delivers his slow core/country hymns with a slurry jazz growl – even while out of tune, it feels totally adherent. Van der Lee takes the listener by the hand for a lurching waltz through the dark woods towards the album’s inevitable chasm: Waste Of Life, a burial song about the uneasiness of his predestined upbringing.
“Now I am standing on the graveyard/where we’re giving back your body/to the ground/I can conclude that your life has been wasted/By all the beauty love and hope you never felt”. As the singer wails these harsh words you can feel yourself being beckoned into his personal realm. But unlike the relative he returns to Gods garden or Danté’s rings of hell, Van Der Lee seems to have found certainty, redemption and closure. While neither endearing himself to a remorseful black dressed community, nor being bound to heaven, his prayers – his songs – are no longer noble means of wasting life on the living.