Three years ago, Oliver Kalb chronicled the drawn-out end of a friendship in vivid detail on his band Bellows’ very good third album, Fist & Palm. Its 11 tracks acting like snapshots into the gradual descent of the relationship. Shortly after that record released the 2016 election happened, and Kalb found himself demoralized by the state of things and perplexed by the constant judgment woven within today’s society. Out of that isolation grew the inspiration for Bellows’ stunning Topshelf debut, The Rose Gardener. The metaphor – a gardener tending to a single rosebush in the dead of winter – defies what most observers would deem futile and explores the thorns to see what might still be living on the other side. Kalb is channeling all that pain from the past few years into something a bit more constructive, resembling a glimmer of optimism amongst all the struggle.
There’s an understanding of acceptance throughout The Rose Gardener, and Kalb realizes that it has to start within first, informing the listener on rousing opener “Housekeeping” that I love this body/even when it hurts” and that he needs to “clear my life away/all the superficial things.” The introspection present on The Rose Gardener is a stark contrast to Fist & Palm – an acknowledgement of resiliency living within its 13 tracks.
Kalb’s lyrical wisdom isn’t the only breakthrough on the record, as Bellows’ musicianship also levels up The Rose Gardener, expanding from Kalb’s bedroom into luscious, sprawling accompaniments. There’s a moment on “Housekeeping” when horns blast through over electronic drums that’s pure euphoria, “Stupidest Thing” stretches into a dazzling kaleidoscope dreamscape, and the album’s title track is a perfect execution of spastic art-folk. The wildest (and most hopeful) moment on The Rose Gardener, however, is “The Tower,” a triumphant, dissonant exploration stuffed with horns, strings, blips, and anything else you can conjure within the indie-rock universe. Featuring collaborations from Jonnie Baker (Florist), Ian Cory (Lamniformes, Sharpless), James Wilcox, Henry Crawford, Gabrielle Smith & Felix Walworth (Gabby’s World, Told Slant), The Rose Gardener is a fully realized vision that spans multiple ideas and tempos.
There’s a duality throughout the record, and it’s best represented at The Rose Gardener’s halfway point. Kalb mentioned that “Denouement” and “What Can I Tell You About the World?” serve as the core of the record – the former serving as an acidic rock song littered with judgment with the latter being a gentle reminder to live a life without judgment. Neither song can live without the other because it’s never that dark nor that simple – and that ideology plays to the larger overarching purpose of The Rose Gardener. This world is a complicated, messy place. But just like the gardener nurturing that single rose in perilous conditions, Bellows implore that we shouldn’t stop trying to improve this life despite the disarray surrounding it.