It’s hard to be truly surprised by a new act at a concert in 2017. With the push of a few buttons, the entire discography for even small local bands can be on your phone’s hard drive. You can learn what that unknown opening act ate today, and thought of Stranger Things season 2 with just a couple more button presses. But there I was, in August, mouth agape, watching Peter Oren perform in Bloomington, Indiana, as part of a bill with Kevin Krauter and Omni. Oren, reared in Indiana, looks like an assuming 20-something who works at a nondescript tech startup (I remember liking his sneakers), which is why it’s so surprising to hear his voice come out of him. He’s in possession of a big, widescreen baritone that sounds like wind rounding a canyon, and he wields it well on his sophomore album, Anthropocene, a song cycle about living in a time of political upheaval, environmental degradation, and a general restlessness.
The title track asks the rhetorical question at the center of the album, “How will we escape this hell we’ve made?” The song starts with Oren’s voice over a strummed acoustic guitar, before light flourishes of plucked string instruments, and drums that sound like they were recorded in an empty factory, give way to lush orchestration in the outro. It’s a showstopper that highlights the charms of the album writ large; Oren’s barrel-aged voice, the lyrics asking big questions, and the stately production courtesy of Ken Coomer, the former drummer for Wilco, who produced the album in Nashville. The song’s theme of grappling with environmental destruction gives way to heavy themes like political action before it’s too late (“Throw Down”) and the power of collectivism as a means of production (“New Gardens”). Oren is the kind of guy who debates about gun rights on dates and then writes songs about it (“Pictures From Spain”).
The songs here creep like a morning fog, lifting as they become more complex in their arrangements. “Falling Water,” the album’s highlight, begins with just Oren and his guitar, singing poetic lines about water and human existence (“I don’t know my face/ I’ve never seen a stream so smooth it could show me”) before it builds and builds thanks to splashes of small percussion and electric guitar (courtesy of Laur Jomets, formerly of Sturgill Simpson’s band). “Throw Down” starts with a maelstrom of strings, but strips the song back to just Oren before reaching its showstopping guitar solo. “Pictures of Spain” climaxes similarly too; you’d be hard pressed to find an album with more aesthetically perfect guitar solos than this one this year.
November is the perfect release month for an album like Anthropocene. It’s the perfect album for when the air is cold enough to see your breath. It falls like leaves, and Oren’s voice creaks like a tree in subzero temperatures. Anthropocene is the folk surprise you need this fall and winter.