Every December for the past five years, longtime Lawrencian Sam Billen has released a Christmas-themed album or compilation of some kind. Christmas is a natural fit for Billen: Like the holiday, his songs evoke a fuzzy nostalgia for youth. Billen's latest, non-yuletide release, Places, thrives on this wistfulness.
Billen has a tender voice and, like Sufjan Stevens or Bon Iver's Justin Vernon, he couches his ideas inside celestial pop songs — a highly compatible aesthetic for his lyrical themes. I took apart my puzzles on the days that I was sick/And I'd start to put them back again/Nibbled on saltine/Pulling at my pillow at the seams, he sings gently, on "Saltine."
"I wanted to capture glimpses of my childhood, magical things I saw, things that you wonder about as a child," Billen says.
Billen has been working on Places on and off for about two years. But some of these songs have been around for far longer. The oldest, "It Is Not a Lie," Billen wrote 11 years ago, after his mother died of breast cancer.
"My grandparents lived in these trailer homes, and we'd go visit them," Billen says of "Hands," a standout track. "It'd be us and our aunts and uncles and cousins. The adults would play poker for pennies and nickels. The kids would be in the next room playing Nintendo.
"Then when I grew up, I would talk to those aunts and uncles and say how magical those times were, and they'd be like, 'Are you kidding me? There was so much drama and tension.' So that's why I repeat at the end of that song, There was so much we didn't know. Because at the time, my brother and I were like, 'This is so cool. We'll go down to Oklahoma, hang out with our cousins. This is awesome!' We just had no idea about the real-life stuff going on. It doesn't seep in until you get way older."