Karen Stever – Idiot Savant

Karen-Stever - Idiot SavantIt all started with Ian. He is nine years old. He is a genius. He has a special bond with animals. He is autistic. He lives in the 1930’s. The world doesn’t understand him. He is an Idiot Savant.

That is the concept on which Karen Stever has based her sophomore record, Idiot Savant. If it sounds like an ambitious concept for a record, that’s because it is. Further more, each track corresponds to a chapter of a book that Stever is writing to accompany the record; ambitious indeed. Luckily, Stever can pull it off and make it look such an easy undertaking.

The album plays out more like a rock opera, than a conventional collection of 12 rock songs. And the story begins with “Green” as Ian visits a carnival, a notion that should be exciting for any child of nine; but already we see that Ian is not like other children. On the surface we hear the jubilant sounds of a carnival, but look deeper and you can see that Stever has manipulated them, making them darker, adding subtleties of horror, mimicking the uncomfortable nature of Ian. And of course society hasn’t missed this rather “odd” behaviour. But they don’t know how to deal with him, as seen in “Scatterbrain” where he is forced to just do as he is told, to stop thinking and dreaming and to essentially abandon his childhood. The instrumentation is erratic as Ian grows increasingly distressed with life.

Stever is not only a talented musician but also a proficient story teller, as each track seems to flick a switch to your imagination, allowing the story told in each song to play out in your mind. As with any concept album Idiot Savant is best listened to from the start to finish in one go, as you get lost in the story of Ian. A story which grows more hopeless when he becomes institutionalised, and the title track explores the many notions of healing that medical professionals of the past thought to be helpful; including lobotomies and hydrotherapy. But despite his situation he finds peace in the doll that becomes his only friend, “Serinetta” and the spiders he befriends in “Blackguard”.

While the album is understandably a rather dark affair, the tracks are held up on a foundation of piano melodies that have a peaceful lullaby feel to them. And towards the end of the album, Stever throws in the jazz fuelled track “Full-Length Mirror” which provides background on Ian’s family life, as the track denotes his mother and her life as a show girl. When listening to the album the track feels like an abrupt turn you weren’t expecting, due to its lively, punchy feel compared to the more solemn instrumentation of the rest of the record, but it works. The track still shares musical threads with the rest of the record, and just goes on to highlight the talents of Stever.

While the story told in Idiot Savant may seem far removed from the lives many of us lead, there is a closer connection than you may initially think. Ian represents the child in all of us. He is the child who never stops asking why. Who never stops looking for more. Who never abandons his imagination. At a point in all of our lives, we stop doing most of those things. We become adults. We get jobs. We have responsibilities. There is no longer room for imagination, for asking why, for fun. He is the child that many people lose as they get older, but Stever wants us all to get back.

The album closes with the sombre, yet hopeful, “Crushing Copper.” A track that Stever tells me is based on the fact that as children it was a fun past time to throw pennies on the train tracks – crushing copper. It is Ian returning to his childhood, going back to the playground, taking back what was taken from him. The train also works as a metaphor for his continuing journey of life. He is carrying on despite it all. His story has not ended. He will continue.

Idiot Savant is definitely an ambitious concept album, and I can promise you that it is a sonic journey that you will want to take. Karen Stever’s talents shine from beginning to end, and if anyone is going to be able to pull of such a record, it’s her.

Idiot Savant is available from karenstever.com.

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