There’s a good chance you haven’t heard of Jonathan Wilson, and Gentle Spirit is his debut album, but don’t mistake him for some new kid on the block. The North Carolinian musician has a pretty impressive musical pedigree. He’s worked with Erykah Badu, Elvis Costello, Robbie Robertson and Jackson Browne, and in November he’ll open for Roy Harper in a one-off show to celebrate the latter’s 70th birthday. The guy can record for the greats and he can play for the greats.
With that in mind, it’s no wonder Gentle Spirit sounds so accomplished, so confident and under control. The album was recorded in Laurel Canyon and feels like it was. It’s a record where you can see Jackson Browne’s influence, or Mickey Newbury’s, or the Band’s – mixed with Harper’s darker murk – but it’s never clever borrowing. Wilson taps into these traditions and makes them his own. There are long-established sounds here, and Wilson nails the “dreary day in the canyon” he claims to be going for, but it also feels very modern and alive. Wilson’s inspiration may come from the past, but he’s hardly looking back on this record.
The title track opens the record with pulsing organs, breathy vocals and lilting strings, creating a mesmerizing sound. “Love it is a melody, beauty is a feeling,” Wilson quietly insists, and you can feel him softly prodding at those feelings. He’s working his way into them, showing us his vision, and though it sounds quiet, it comes across as sturdy and often powerful. The dream-pop leanings of “Gentle Spirit” frame more folk sounds on songs like the haunting “Rain in the Canyon”, which finds Wilson digging into the same emotional search. “We’re young, our hearts of free,” he keens, while cymbals ripple out into space, guitars shimmer, and Wilson’s voice is coated in a subtle echo.
These songs, like much of the record, are soft but spacious. They stretch out to fill the canyon around Wilson. Sometimes they’ll ramp up, with the crunching guitar solos on “The Way I Feel” or the psych-blues rundowns of “Woe Is Me”, but mostly – as the album’s title implies – Wilson deals in more comforting textures. Luckily, though, they never feel light. The eight-minute-plus “Natural Rhapsody” is particularly strong, with its dusty layering and impressive guitar work. In fact, the lead playing here is the closest most anyone can come to replicating the tone and lyricism of Jerry Garcia’s solos. Wilson’s voice is faint over this mix, and it occasionally gets lost, but mostly it’s a welcome extra here, never insisting on itself and instead coming across as another carefully considered coating in the music. It doesn’t come over the top of the mix here, it fits itself in.
Of course, his dreamy vocals are at their best when the mix is equally murky. More stripped-down numbers like “Ballad of the Pines” or “Rolling Universe” are sweet, but they also get overshadowed by the bigger numbers around them. In the studio, Wilson has so many players working with him – including Andy Cabic and Otto Hauser from Vetiver, and members of the Black Crowes and the Jayhawks – so when he puts them all to work it comes off as a powerful sound from a musical community. The final epic song, “Valley of the Silver Moon”, runs more than 10 minutes and filters his wandering folk-pop through the swampy feel of Crazy Horse. It’s a beautiful, measured close that builds without erupting. It exists in the same sweet limbo the rest of the record does, where space does more work than volume does, and that restraint gives otherwise stretched-out songs some tension.
The trouble with Gentle Spirit may end up being its generosity of sound, though. The album runs 78 minutes, and, of its 13 songs, eight of them run more than six minutes. Now, each song on its own has its merits, but taken together it’s a huge chunk of music to digest, and the careful sheets of each composition start to blur together. The zeal in presenting a glut of music like this is commendably refreshing actually, but in the end Gentle Spirit may be too big for its own good. You won’t get tired of it, exactly, but when you find the one song that hits you, when you dig into its layers and rabbit holes, that’s when you’ll get as close to this music as you need to be. We should all be looking forward to more from Wilson, but it couldn’t hurt if it comes in smaller doses in the future. There’s a lot of space in Laurel Canyon, so no need to try and fill it all in one shot.