When I read that this album was “dedicated to Rishi Dhanivan Sweeney” I knew that I had to approach this album with reverence. Already knowing that the Artist’s name was Luke Sweeny, I shuddered when I noticed the shared surname, and of course, when I read the dates on which this person was born, I was assaulted by my own empathy, by my natural capacity to connect deeply with grief. This is a capacity that I know most of us to have, but one that sometimes I wish I didn’t.
Grief can paralyze us. It can ruin relationships. It can rob our lives of years and meaning. What to do when you are struck by one of life’s cruelest tragedies? The loss of a child is perhaps the most difficult moment that any one person can go through. it is one I pray never to experience, and hope you don’t either. For Luke Sweeney, this loss turned him inwards like it does many people with the difference that the inner worlds of musicians only contain poetry and melodies and rhythms begging to be let out.
Luke became a man of threnodies, laments, would-haves, could-haves, and more. He gave the ashes of Rishi over to the Ganges. The inexorable south-and-east flow of Hinduism’s most sacred river carried away a piece of him with its waters, but a parting gift was laid in his heart, and thus began a new creative process.
Clocking in at roughly 36 minutes and 11 songs, Rishi is far more light-hearted in its sound than my introduction of it would have you believe. Luke is not necessarily prone to burdening the listener with somber and mournful melodies, and even at their darkest, the lyrics seem sung with a wry smile rather than a bitter snarl. The album was largely conceived in India but it was recorded in San Francisco with the help of Joe Santarpia and Roberto Pagano from August 2018 to September 2020.
The first -titular- track is of course a meditation on the name itself that she briefly carried. in Hindi “Rishi” means sage; seer; or teacher. In many ways, parenthood can be the most teaching experience in life, and the song’s Chorus reflects an ecstatic clamor that only this part of life can provide
Rishi send me down a Rishi/ Send her from the skies
Rishi, come on baby Rishi/ Open my eyes!
I half expected to find a song like this in the album. For reasons that are obvious, this album is filled with references to Hinduism and Indian culture. This particular track swims in the pastel-colored synth sounds that Luke Sweeny is known for, but there’s an undeniable spice to the track that can get you a bit choked up. ‘Adjeevan Dose’ is part prayer and part unsung lullaby. Something in between a grief-stricken ballad by Sufjan Stevens and the 66-68 Indian music experiment by George Harrison within the framework of The Beatles.
Princess of the Pearl palace
The alliterative 3rd track opens with a wistful piano melody that hints of R&B influences. The track eventually develops into a more soft pop-rock fable about the titular Prince of the Pearl palace who “don’t wear a crown/ That vanity would never fit”-
In Hinduism, Pearls are often associated with the virtues of Purity and Love, and by extension with Krishna, the embodiment of Vishnu, who’s the most popular god of Hindu worship.
So far the most whimsical-sounding track, and one where we can better appreciate Luke Sweeney’s rich wellspring of textures and melodic output. I’m hard-pressed to find out what the exact meaning behind the lyrics is, and I’ll avoid guessing for my own emotional well-being. I think it’s better to just get carried away with the vibe than try to intellectualize every little thing.
Regardless, Animal Room is an incredibly fresh track, which if heard entirely out of context could pass for something out of The Beach Boys.
Indian Radio Values
With a soulful twist and a slow start, Indian Radio Values stood out immediately as one of my favorite tracks, in no small part thanks. On the face of it, this song seems to be about a love that has to overcome language and cultural hurdles before it can bloom.
Regardless of what the song is truly about, it’s one of the most musically interesting pieces in the entire album, even going so far as to fade out on a brief and mellow saxophone solo that ties it all together in a nice eclectic bow.
Jaipur Icecream Truck
Following up on Indian Radio Values is kind of tough, but the two songs make for an interlude at the midway point of the album. This particular track is also one of the richest in sound, in fact, it is an instrumental track that fuses glassy and even-tempered synths with a tropical rhythm section.
Clay Model Replica of Heaven
Though Hinduism has been present so far in the album, Luke’s own western heritage is made manifest in the somewhat sarcastic religious reproach found in this track. ‘Clay Model Replica of Heaven’ does go deeper into Luke’s wound than any other track so far, even though it’s no less sweet-sounding and gentle, nor does it want for any melodic playfulness either.
Though the song does have its digs at religious dogma and even the concept of a higher power, the context of it and the buoyant riff don’t make it come off as snide or unwarranted. It even references Hairspray in its final line.
From a lyrical point of view, I think This song is one of the most well-written in the entire album, one particular line really stood out to me:
a clay model replica of heaven
And all our days are numbered
one through seven”
With a jangled and distant tv start, “Tangled Harmonies” somehow manages to up the lyrical game presented by “Clay Model Replica of Heaven”. it’s a mix of lo-fi spoken word and grieving song that hinges all of its power on one question -perhaps *the* question driving the album- “What do you do?”
How do you go on
With an aching so strong?
Find your heartbeat in her song…
River & Last Resort on the Left.
“Last Resort on the Left” completes the circuit of the 60s reference book. Here we get a different flavor of vocals by Luke Sweeney that one cannot help but take as another stylistic connection to George Harrison.
The song is fairly short, and in spite of the ever-cheerful disposition of the music, it is perhaps the most heartbreaking thing that Sweeney’s written for this album, so much so that I find it difficult to really describe it in any significant detail. I simply cannot help it.
There is no doubt in my mind that Luke Sweeney is a true poet.
Lies a wake,
Petals on the footprints
Of her route
You lie awake,
Waiting for the sun
Letter to Rishikesh
While “Last Resort On The Left” is a masterful display of economy in songwriting (saying a lot in very few, very short verses), I think “Letter To Rishikesh” is definitely the better song of the two when everything is taken into consideration. I quite literally could not contain the tears, openly weeping for a baby girl that I never knew. How can all of this be? If you were to listen to this song completely out of context, it’s more likely that you would confuse it for something out of a Ghibli film, and find yourself then merrily humming along to the child-like and steady march. In full view of what the song is saying, and after the entire journey before us, the most happy-go-lucky song now becomes the most emotionally impactful in the entire album, a fitting goodbye message and a thank you letter to the town bearing its name.
Every single song in “Rishi” breaks your heart a little bit. Every new step in this journey is a tender and loving work of art that only a parent could have come up with. “Rishi” is hugs that were never given. Lessons never taught. Scrapes never kissed. It is a “what if?” of a lifetime rolled into a delightful long play worth sharing. To you, I say that truly, this is the most beautiful album I’ve heard in a very long time and a difficult but rewarding emotional experience.