Break Me Open

break me open

In his solo career outside of Bon Iver, S. Carey has crafted a tranquil vision of the natural world. The classically trained composer and multi-instrumentalist often takes inspiration from the wilderness of his native Wisconsin—among other places—to create evocative arrangements bent on capturing the resonance of a pristine landscape. Close your eyes and you’ll see towering, snow-covered pines or the summer sun’s radiant reflection on the creek.

But in between 2018’s Hundred Acres and his new LP Break Me Open, Carey contended with monumental loss: His marriage fell apart and his father passed away. The idyll woven into his music didn’t just darken—it fractured. His latest album is somber and searching; at times, it’s flat-out bleak. On the pulsating “Dark,” Carey sings to his children: “If I ever lost you/I’d throw myself into the deepest riverbend.” Though delivered in a near whisper, the line whips the ear like a raw winter wind. A moment later, Carey catches himself with wry self-awareness: “Well, I know that seems dark/But that’s what I might do/If I ever lost you.” It’s meant as a declaration of love and devotion, but the song’s climactic groundswell, pierced by trumpet and saxophone, confesses a yawning pain.

Break Me Open evolves Carey’s early-career instinct for dense arrangements woven from dulcet instrumentation and technological experimentation with overdub and Auto-Tune. Working once again with producers Zach Hanson and Chris Messina, he spent nine days “putting a bow on years of demos and tinkering, building, re-building,” he wrote on Instagram. In true Carey fashion, that meticulous evolution can be heard in the sheer quantity of synths, loops, and vocal effects braided into each track—synthetic textures that heighten his delicate melodies and intrude on the natural landscape so central to his music.

A flurry of synths embody the immobilizing sensation of “Paralyzed,” where Carey contemplates his children growing older and leaving him behind. The song feels suffocating, but he builds to a soaring finish, knowing that to hold something too close is to lose it. Near the end of the brooding, almost claustrophobic “Starless,” a Prismizer effect captures his bewilderment. The blank sky hanging over the song keeps its compass hidden; nature, once a source of respite and gold-tinged verdancy, seems distant and disorienting in the wake of so much personal loss. “The earth is all but dead,” he sings. “Where will you lay your head?”

Carey’s spare writing, with plainspoken lyrics that sit diminutively against the expansive dimensions of his soundscapes, doesn’t express the same emotional complexity he strives for in his music. On Break Me Open, he’s still processing—the shock of divorce reverberates through his lyrics, which reach for understanding but fall short of poignancy. “If you judge, please don’t/Judge me from where I was,” he sings on “Where I Was.” The next line sets up a dramatic contrast that lands without impact: “But if you must, please do/Judge me from where I am.” Alongside “Waking Up,” it’s a modest, quiet song that ends before it fully unfurls.

S. Carey Break Me Open Artwork