A Hand Through the Cellar Door is, in many ways, Temple’s most straightforward collection of song-storying tunes to date. There are tales of dysfunctional, broken homes and of dysfunctional, broken people. “Birds of Late December,” with its fluttering, nimble fingerpicking, paints an exacting but impressionistic portrait of divorce through the eyes of an exceptionally wistful child. In both “Maryanne Was Quiet” and “The Case of Louis Warren” we follow two characters whose lives unravel in very different ways, though their central question is the same: After you shed all the things you think make you who you are, what is left? Temple is creating small, confident stories with a massive scope – like a good Alice Munroe story. Album standout “The Complicated Men of the 1940s” is a thought experiment concerning the sacrifice of a passing generation, where the heroes of yesterday seem like the stuffy, old guard to a new generation that’s grown just a bit too entitled to their comfort.
But this being Temple and all – the creative mind behind Here We Go Magic – nothing is really ever so straightforward. The arrangements, kept to a minimal drums/guitar/bass/string set-up here, expand and contract in unexpected ways. Temple writes with the eye of a painter like Eric Fischl. Whereas Fischl will put a subtle provocative image in the margins of a piece to create a feeling of imbalance, Temple will add a guitar hiccup or a just-behind-the-beat string section to create a sensation of everything being slightly off. And in that imbalance, both artists show us grace. Yes, while the tales Temple weaves are bleak, the aura of hope never quite fades from the picture. He turns the tragedies of human folly into a celebration of our eccentricities.