4 out of 5
Recorded by: Mike Mogis
Label: Secretly Canadian
I don’t know why this album works for me.
I don’t mean why the album is fantastic – I’d sort of be defeating my intentions here if I couldn’t speak to that in some way – I mean, personally, I don’t think I’d really flipped over early Songs:Ohia albums, and as he (aka songster Jason Molina) descended further into his career and minimalism became his songwriting signature – somewhat ditching the almost punky verve that underlined those early recordings and made them representative of the proto-Secretly Canadian sound – my brain alerted me that barely-there music and double-dour troubadours weren’t really my bag and I expected myself to move on and take up a career writing really, really long sentences.
But instead, I found myself enraptured by a couple of releases – Ghost Tropic and followup Didn’t It Rain? – utterly mesmerizingly beautiful despair (or the Molina variant, which hides behind hopeful mantras repeated, trance-like, at length) blanketed in partially soothing, partially isolating ambient effects. Rain? posits a night as black as its cover, but occasionally has a sense of humor. But for my “depress the shit out of me” money, Ghost Tropic is the bee’s knees, an astounding blend of chaotic noise that’s simultaneously distant and quiet; slowcore sadness played with dedicated intensity.
While the album’s overall vibe is one of languor, there is a sensation of the experience crawling it up into itself over the course of its 8 tracks, which unfortunately leaves us with the very sparse – and ultimately lacking much evolution over its 12 minutes – Incantation, but taken as its title and viewed as a final blissed-out outro-summoning of the preceding experience…. Well, no, it’s still not a very compelling track, but it works okay as a bookends.
Regardless, before that all is well (that is to say: Very, very unwell.). Opener Lightning Risked It All is so bizarrely passive and violent, with its clattering and random percussion, the album immediately casts its spell, and fittingly thunderstrikes with an especially emotional final passage. The moody The Body Burned Away has a strong, bass-y throughline that gets built and built upon with Molina’s surging vocals and touches of triangle and strings. A slow, steady strum and emphatically repeated phasings carries us through No Limits On The Words into the first of two haunting instrumental passages that at first sound like a cave or an open field replete with echoes and bird noises, until faint instrumentation trickles in. The Ocean’s Nerves goes slow and steady again, before the album’s masterpiece: Not Just a Ghost’s Heart. Like Lightning Risked It All, there’s something simply chaotic about the structure of the song, as a phone-call like tweet interjects at odd intervals, while Jason just boldly marches forward, resolving upon a dramatically and confidently held strum over the final few minutes. It is one of the most powerfully simple musical expressions I’ve heard.
And then more bird sounds.
Incantation might peter out, but Ghost Tropic lives up to its name as something of a haunting destination; an album that sure is Songs:Ohia, and sure is unlike anything else.