Shadows Cast, No Repeal
Ed Kuepper’s Lost Cities is late career gold
June 28th 2017
(In lieu of an AllMusic review, since AllMusic is ignorant of this album.)
This is a difficult album to review but I’m gonna try, because it speaks to me; it seems to say (or to attempt to say) something no other record is saying, and on a wavelength specifically tailored to me or to temperaments like mine. The work of a rock guitarist well-schooled in both the aggression of punk and the angular atmospherics of what came after, it’s also soft, sombre, spare and suggestive—a meeting of ambient, folk, rock, blues and cinematic lushness reminiscent (dare I say it?) of the genre nowadays called “shoegaze” that succeeds, for the most part, in sounding both timeless and up-to-date. For the work of a man in his sixties, unaccompanied, this is no mean feat. And, in certain moods, with Lost Cities in the background, for maybe half its running time, I’d be happy to leave the review at that. But (and this may well be part of its charm—of its power, even) when I listen more closely it fades a little, or breaks apart, or at least reveals its faults: a coy, glib or slightly clichéd turn of phrase here; a pat chord-change or melodic phrase there; a sense that, for all its mystery, maybe when you focus closely its apparent depth resolves, at least partly, into reflection. (Don’t get me wrong, there’s depth here, I’d bet on it, even if I can’t quite fathom it; but I feel something the same when I read, say, Jim Morrison’s poetry: some of it’s awesome, evocative and thrilling—it seems linked directly to the collective consciousness—but only for a few lines, then it’s flat again.)
The shadows are cast, there is no repeal,
The glow of our torches hangs over the field.
When he talks like this, though, Ed Kuepper is all right with me. That semi-archaic phrasing, those timeless images. Later he’ll sing:
It’s the ruins that misguide my love for thee.
Now that is nice. And if he’d just stick with that tone and aesthetic I’d be satisfied—the album would be seemless, his delivery convincing. But now and then some “rockist” phrase ripples the surface, disturbing my trance and apparently Kuepper’s, since such phrases sound slightly clumsy on his lips. Or so it seems to me. Like I say, it’s hard, reviewing this. On one level I love it: so this is what one man and a guitar can do—it’s a revelation! Those enchanting high delicate sub-chordal post-Neil Young riffs; that low growl, that infinite reverb; that semi-spoken / whispered, almost deadpan, minimal-yet-melodic vocal! When it works—as it mostly does here—it’s gold. All that said, over the length of the album, much as I appreciate it’s all of a piece, it lags slightly, pales, seems to lack a dimension. But for 3-4 tracks, with one ear on Kuepper and one on whatever’s inside (ie: in my world, but infiltrated by Kuepper’s), it’s a masterpiece, the kind of suggestive almost-background soundtrack that seems pulled, dark and crawling with life, from another dimension—that seems downright magical, for as long as you don’t look (or listen) directly at it.
(Lost Cities was released via Prince Melon / Valve in December 2015.)