By Amanda Nordqvist
One of our favourite Canadians, Vancouver-based pianist/composer Nathan Shubert, recently released his second full-length album, just over two years after his successful debut, Folds. Shubert went on a European tour for Piano Day, showcasing his newest release, When You Take Off Your Shoes – and as far as I’d like to believe, his apparent penchant for Scandinavian culture (or, at the very least, Scandinavian languages) shines through just a little bit. I may or may not be a tad biased, but I will say: this album is an absolute masterpiece.
After introducing his concept with an immersive field recording of a busy street, somehow intimately anonymous, Shubert takes off into a comfortably high tempo, the instant depth of A Beacon, A Pulse sending a warm wave through my body. The clicks and creaks of the piano – these utterly endearing noises we seem to share a love for – get to play a big part of the piece, accentuated by the ever-forward motion that Shubert manages to hold in suspense. Without ever seeming rushed, there’s this never-tiring surge for a goal somewhere up ahead; it’s comforting to feel that Shubert trusts his listeners to be able to keep up.
The immediate change in sound and atmosphere seems, at first, almost comical – but there is a sober air to the goofy rhythmic of Repose, Tenuous, sort of like listening to someone tell a joke only to slowly realise there’s a much darker lesson to be learned behind the words. The repetitive nature of the piece has me humming along quietly, finding myself suddenly completely in love with the tune. Equally as enamouring is the title track, with its white noise of nature lending a paradoxical sense of surrealism when paired with the quietly determined piano, something so intimate and enveloped. Shubert is gently tapping away, the signature melody swaying confidently and completely uninhibited, only to be subtly corrupted towards the end as reality seems to fade away into the background.
There seems to be an active choice to everything Shubert does, from the titles to the order of the tracks, making sure the next piece never feels like a repetition of its predecessor. There’s ambient droning, sound palates that cover both soft warmth and gritty concrete; there are contrasts of cold, wet air paired with the warm fabric of Shubert’s piano, as the unhurried pace of Fable, Fleeting tells stories of sitting inside by a fire while a slow storm roars outside. I am blown away by Shubert’s ability to remind me that everyday objects can be given unfathomable meaning – that something perfectly ordinary can contain a whole array of memories. In Pencils he gently introduces another plateau of sound, as strings and clarinet build a grandiose swelling, but ever so fleetingly, tactfully avoiding getting overly dramatic.
Shubert seems to have really taken his time to compose the whopping 15 tracks that make up the album, and it shows in the over-all quality of his pieces. With a clear concept, a couple of heavy-lifters packed with field recordings and emotion, and a few tracks whose main purpose seems to be to add to the atmosphere, When You Take Off Your Shoes is a pleasure to experience, a beautiful example of how to work hard without the results sounding over-worked – and a testament to Shubert’s dedication to the contemporary classical music scene.