Everything goes in circles, everything comes around again, and at the moment one of the more prominent trends in music is a fascination with the folk- and country-rock sounds of the early 1970s, the singer-songwriter boom based around Laurel Canyon in Los Angeles, where the likes of Crosby, Stills, Nash, Young, Mitchell and sundry Mamas and Papas laid the foundations for the colossal success of such as The Eagles.
Like Fleet Foxes and Icelandic singer Kalli (see review), North Carolinan songwriter Jonathan Wilson has developed a strong affiliation with that era and that sound, which he has attempted to re-create here helped by members of The Jayhawks and Vetiver, alongside old-school hippie stalwarts like keyboardist Barry Goldberg and percussionist Gary Mallaber. Wilson has a vinyl, analogue sensibility – the album was conceived as a double-vinyl rather than single-CD package – which oozes warmly through Gentle Spirit, right from the title-track's opening piano and acoustic guitar motifs, bonded together by the hazy fluting of mellotron. His hushed, breathy vocal embodies the gentle spirit itself, its incantatory warmth affirming a pure faith in music as he frets about how "The powers are killing the paupers/Some might get a gun/However, gentle spirit find our hearts".
This concern, about how to reconcile one's desire for inner peace with our rage at worldly events, runs through the album, most directly in "Can We Really Party Today?". Wilson sketches a bucolic idyll before softly brooding organ enters as he poses the title query. Isn't it a time, he wonders, for re-creation, in the sense of rebuilding, rather than recreation? Likewise, in "Waters Down", a fluttering vista of guitar arpeggios, flute and organ conveys a paradise in jeopardy. "Modern world a nasty mystery, turn it round, turn it round," he sings. "Natural world she needs our energy."
This hippie pantheism ultimately holds sway over Wilson's attitude. "Natural Rhapsody" evokes the Edenic paradise in a languorous slow waltz, guitars rippling over swells of drums, like waves lapping gently on the shore. And in "Desert Raven", sublime twin-guitar lines soar up, then spiral down, over fatalistic chords reminiscent of Neil Young's "Down by the River", as Wilson lionises the bird: "The raven who flies through the desert sky is wiser than you or me... the desert raven, he has poetry". Elsewhere, a robin, and an oak tree are employed as rustic metaphors for his emotions in "The Way I Feel", and the general mood of bucolic euphoria eventually overflows with "Magic Everywhere".
It's not entirely successful, however, but in a way the negatives betoken deeper positives, particularly in the way that the weaker tracks are those which most clearly reflect their origins. The overlong closer "Valley of the Silver Moon" too openly betrays its roots in Neil Young's longer reverie-jams, while "Canyon in the Rain" is evanescent and amorphous enough to have come from David Crosby's overrated solo debut. But thankfully, the further Wilson gets from his heroes, the better he gets.
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