We have all become experts in the imbalance of uncertainty these days, newly accustomed to canceling plans and tentatively rescheduling them for some future we can only imagine. For Austin Crane—the ruminative songwriter, riveting guitarist, and singular voice performing and collaborating as Valley Maker for more than a decade now—such a sense of uncertainty has emerged as his steadfast companion these last few years, a period of profound transition.
It’s prompted him to appreciate the present even as he analyzes it, to acknowledge the future’s limitless possibilities even as he recognizes its potential perils. This flux is the anchor for Crane’s fourth and best album as Valley Maker, the gorgeous and felicitous When the Day Leaves. Through his compelling accounting of the past and his reckoning with this moment, Crane stares down the “part of life that remains unknown.”
Early in 2019, Crane and his wife, Megan, decided it was time to leave Seattle. South Carolina natives, they’d been in Seattle for the better part of a decade while he pursued a doctorate in human geography at the University of Washington, and she worked as a midwife. As family members got older and longtime friends started relocating back to the Carolinas, they were confined to a cramped apartment in an expensive, distant city. When Megan found a job at a hospital in Columbia, their college town, they took a whirlwind house-hunting trip and found an affordable little home in need of big love. As Summer 2019 ended, they prepared to head east and rejoin a deep community of friends, settling in a city undergoing a welcome renaissance.
Still, major questions loomed: Would they, just then past 30, like it enough to stay, to start a new life? And what did it mean to go home? How would it feel, especially now, to leave the socially and politically comfortable hub of Seattle for a Southern city marked by enduring economic and racial divides, where the granite sides of the State Capitol remain pocked by Sherman’s cannons? And what would it be like to restore a century-old home so overgrown it had become a neighborhood punchline, to plant new roots in a place some had written off?
These quandaries frame When the Day Leaves, Crane’s self-portrait of his own worries and dreams, desires and regrets, ideals and anxieties. In having finally found home, Crane seems also to have found a way to reflect our age of immense uncertainty. Written just before and after the couple’s cross-country trek, these 11 songs ponder what will become of the world and of Crane himself. Driven as it is by departure, When the Day Leaves marks the arrival of Valley Maker as a trustworthy narrator for these shaky times.
Crane synthesizes these complex feelings into the magnetic first single, “No One Is Missing.” A song about reckoning with self-doubt while searching for community, “No One Is Missing” acknowledges the tension inherent in those ideas, especially during our polarized times. You’ll find yourself singing along to these blues about the search for solidarity, comforted by them.
“Voice Inside the Well” is a ringer for Kurt Vile’s insouciance, but Crane draws a crooked line between the 2017 Las Vegas massacre and his own shortcomings, ruminating on our collective struggle to temper “the rage inside the overheating.” The swaying “Branch I Bend” is a workaday anthem and an ode to whatever goodness you find, to recognizing grace in a world that can seem starved for it.
All these thoughts are rendered with newfound lyrical richness. Crane feels like a burgeoning poet here, able to balance intimate tidbits with universal ambiguity in songs that foster intrigue. He raises questions only to let them linger, shaping clouds of geographical and political signifiers and asking you to draw out the meaning. During “Mockingbird,” he sings of moving to his Columbia home and planting a new tree, tiny details that induce an imaginative diorama for the listener—where does life go from here?
During the luxuriant blues waltz “Aberration,” he turns questions about the unease that upends our sleep into a modern Whitman credo for pressing on. “Alive, alive/Try to begin/Again, arrive,” he sings, his longtime harmonizing partner Amy Godwin offering up perfect reassurance. These elliptical narratives, along with the album’s sublime if understated production and thoughtful structures, often recall Gillian Welch and Arthur Russell, twin touchstones for Crane.
For Valley Maker’s earlier albums, Crane recorded in fits and starts, tracking only when the exigencies of graduate school, tours, finances, and life at large allowed. But in the months before recording began this time, he convened with producer Trevor Spencer and Godwin for sessions in Portland and Seattle, teasing out the album’s interwoven arrangements and meticulous vocal harmonies.
Then, in November 2019, Crane decamped from Columbia to the Pacific Northwest for a three-week session in the woods outside of Woodinville, a small town northeast of Seattle at the foot of the Cascades. He stayed in the loft of Spencer’s Way Out Studio, the two sealing themselves off in a horse barn-turned-recording room like kids at summer camp, just as winter’s mist closed in.
They recorded nearly all of When the Day Leaves during their studio sequestration, putting together the finger-picked acoustic bones of the songs themselves. A small community of collaborators drifted in and out, adding imaginative accents—the horns and winds that seem to lift Crane’s spirits during “No One Is Missing,” the violin that galvanizes the edge of “On a Revelation,” the drums that shape “Pine Trees” like a series of rolling peaks and valleys.
The time commitment is a crucial component of When the Day Leaves. These arrangements are intricate and elegant, little troves of detail in which you might discover, say, a newly bent guitar string or another of Godwin’s spectral harmonies on your twelfth listen. What’s more, these eleven songs snap together like puzzle pieces, so that the scene you step into with the first notes of opener “Branch I Bend” is the same one you exit when the glowing organs of closer “When the Day Leaves” go dark. For 46 minutes, you feel like you’re sitting with Crane in a unified sound-world of his design; he offloads his observations about our tangled thicket of hope and fear, aspiration and exasperation.
When the Day Leaves is an uninterrupted sequence of reflections about the generational limbo of being awed by and worried for this world. The anxiety of uncertainty—always part of life but now seemingly omnipresent—can be vexing, a reality these songs acknowledge. Crane, as he sings at one point, is fully “aligned with my blues.” But these songs also affirm that life is an endless opportunity for renewal, for trying again. As with dusk, when the day leaves and “tries to start again” amid a riot of expiring colors, we eventually learn what comes next.