Are You Gone
As Sarah Harmer explains, she never planned to take 10 years off between albums. But then, time flies when you’re fighting large multinational energy corporations who want to redevelop precious green space and threaten endangered species. Since the mid-2000s, the Canadian indie-folk singer-songwriter has been involved in various eco-preservation efforts in Southern Ontario, but after the release of 2010’s Oh Little Fire, those sideline pursuits became full-time passion projects. “I guess I got used to not being a musician for a while,” Harmer tells Apple Music. “Once you crack into local grassroots organizing, it’s a lot of work—like writing letters and attending municipal meetings. Music just wasn't front and center in what I was interested in.”
But during her extended hiatus, Harmer would always have a guitar nearby in case inspiration struck, and by spring of 2017, she had amassed enough songs to begin working on her sixth album—which would’ve been finished a bit sooner had she not spent the next year helping her partner renovate an old house. By kismet, Are You Gone has finally surfaced on the 20th anniversary of her 2000 breakthrough, You Were Here, and Harmer sees the records as complementary bookends, born of a simliar DIY methodology and a shared feeling of “coming out of the wilderness.”
However, unlike its spiritual predecessor, Are You Gone uncorks the restless energy of an artist who’s been cooped up for far too long. The urgent indie pop of “Take Me Out” and the brooding alt-rock of “Wildlife” (written by her friend Dave Hodge) hark back to her time fronting the fuzzy ’90s outfit Weeping Tile, and the rabble-rousing anthem “New Low” is powered by a scrappy cowpunk gallop and a muscular brass section. But while the latter song supports the reasonable assumption that an avowed activist like Harmer would use her first record in 10 years as a pulpit to speak out against the various injustices consuming our world, Are You Gone ultimately favors heart-to-heart addresses over politicized proclamations. The opening “St. Peter’s Bay” is classic Harmer, an intimate portrait of fading romance framed by a gently swaying arrangement, gorgeous lyrical scenery, and a wistful, swoon-worthy hook. The brisk, Fleetwood Mac-esque folk-rocker “The Lookout” presents a cliffside rendezvous so intense and all-consuming, “the beauty of the place was blocked by the way I held you too close.” And the jaunty piano-rolled rhythm of “What I Was to You” belies its tragic source material: Originally inspired by a dying friend, the song eventually evolved into a tribute to late Tragically Hip singer (and fellow Kingston, Ontario, fixture) Gord Downie.
But for Harmer, Are You Gone’s preference for the personal over the polemical doesn’t so much represent a break from her activist intrests as a means to disseminate them more widely. “I think part of the album's motivation for me is to spend less time doing all the minutiae of fighting The Man in my own little tiny way, and to get my engine rolling a bit bigger so that I can have a larger voice.” She then adds, with a laugh: “I’ll just speak out about all that [political] stuff during my in-between song banter.”