Whether folk music is inherently suited to grim, mature musings or vice versa, the turbulence which permeates the work of a “dark” or “angry” young songwriter seems to catalyze over time, to potentially yield songs that, despite their softer, subtler tread, are broader in perspective and smoldering in their intensity. (For example, Apocalypse, the lonesome country opus by Bill Callahan aka Smog, dispensed the quirky, melancholic solipsism of his Smog persona to deliver wry folk reportage as an outsider looking in on contemporary American society; or Jordan Reyne’s later work, specifically How the Dead Live and Children of a Factory Nation, which jettisoned the heavy alt-rock and electronic baggage of previous albums in favour of Celtic melodies and industrial folk to narrate dark tales of marginalized people struggling to survive difficult circumstances.)
Yob frontman Mike Scheidt recently observed that heavy-music visionaries Neurosis are, “a whole universe unto themselves.” Rooted in an atavistic awe of nature, the daimonic cosmogony that seems to inform all Neurot output also prevails on Neurosis vocalist/guitarist Steve Von Till’s fourth solo recording, A Life Unto Itself. Beginning with the proclamation on “In Your Wings” that “in your dark, all is right,” Von Till takes solace in the warmth of an acoustic guitar (accompanied by Jay Kardong’s haunting pedal steel) as if it were a glowing high-plains campfire. The personal reckoning and wild, elemental imagery of the title track affirm the album’s pedigree as a Neurot Recordings release and set the overall tone of the record, the brightest light of which is “Night of the Moon”: carried by a hypnotically phasing, echoey space-rock riff the track’s vertiginous poetry, translated from Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff’s “Mondnacht”, soars on Kardong’s portamenti and the throbbing current of synths by Randall Dunn (Master Musicians of Bukkake). The album swoops to its emotional nadir shortly thereafter with a poignant confession on “Chasing Ghosts”: “I scratched my plans out in the sand / and dashed them all out on the stones / too blind to see the road before me”, followed by closing track “Known But Not Named”, which acknowledges a certain acrimony that, relieved by its own admission, releases both the narrator and the listener to ride unburdened into the sunset.
Where previous solo efforts felt almost too personal somehow, A Life Unto Itself offers a balanced output that maintains a confessional tone without compromising the nature of the songs as musical expressions intended to be heard and experienced by others. Framing intimate reflections on age and experience within a timeless and dark Americana style, Von Till’s tales of hardship and regret also serve as a soundtrack to the cultural senescence of a postindustrial America where, in the wake of failed or failing industry, empty stores and homes are boarded up, crumbling factories are shut down, and whole towns are inevitably abandoned to nature’s repossession for a new wild west. Additionally, where the honesty of folk music requires a delicate touch to express darker moods and themes without falling into maudlin self-parody, the consistently haunted tone of this album is a rare achievement; the songs are as authentically dark and timeless as any traditional folk or blues number. Highly recommended.
Steve Von Till: