First Listen: We Are The Willows, 'Picture (Portrait)'

We Are the Willows
We Are the Willows, whose album 'Picture (Portrait)' will be available on Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2014. (Courtesy the artist)

There are concept albums, and there are love stories, and then there is the ambitious undertaking that is We Are the Willows' third album, Picture (Portrait). In writing the album, frontman Peter Michael Miller turned to the 350-odd letters that his grandfather, Alvin, mailed to his grandmother, Verlie, while overseas serving in the Army during World War II, and channeled their story into 10 songs about longing, loneliness, and devotion. And although theirs is a story we've heard told thousands of times before, Miller has succeeded in turning their tale into an album that can only be described as epic.

Although we already know how the story ends before the album begins—the two main characters ended up becoming Miller's grandparents, after all—there are no clear answers present in these tracks. Which is what makes this collection of songs so compelling: rather than tell the story of these two war-torn lovers from the distance usually associated with a third-person narrator, Miller assumes the role of his grandfather throughout the album and sings from his point of view. As we travel with him we have no idea if he is going to make it back home alive, much less make it back to marry his new love. And as the years go by—a full four years pass between the main character meeting his love and when he finally returns home to marry her—we travel not just into the depths of his longing but also into the dark moments of utter hopelessness. "Oh my God, I see it all, I see the end," he sings sorrowfully on the album's most harrowing track "To Me, From You," "His face is facing me and the ground is facing him. Is he different than me? Am I different than anyone?"

Any We Are the Willows album is only as good as its ability to showcase Miller's voice, which glides along the high registers like a woodwind before breaking open into powerful, plaintive wails, and the overall prettiness of this album with all of its strings and acoustic swells serves as a fitting backdrop. And though the lyrics are often grave, the overall jauntiness of the album, propelled forward by the constant strum of banjo and guitar, helps to keep things moving along.

Given the premise of this project, this album could have easily turned trite. But in the hands of Miller, already an accomplished songwriter and vocalist, it becomes a story not just about his grandparents but about anyone who has ever been pushed down into the darkness and pulled out again. This is not a "happily-ever-after" love story, although we know that part is coming once the album ends. This is a story about all of the battles we must wage within ourselves and trials we must endure--in this case, literally going to war—before we can truly understand what it means to love and be loved.

Peter Miller of We Are the Willows will perform as a part of the Communion Nightclub series at the Turf Club on Tuesday, Nov. 18 with Mikhael Paskalev and Count This Penny.

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  • We Are The Willows - Picture (Portrait)
    We Are The Willows - Picture (Portrait) (Album art)