Zachary Cale’s last album, 2013’s excellent Blue Rider, was an exercise in sparseness as expansion. The record centered on Cale’s voice and finger-picked guitar, with a few flourishes here and there. But the spare sounds echoed out into vast space around them, making them larger, presenting isolation not as a limitation or a way to be closed off but rather as an expansion, even an extension of the self.
That record, as its title implies, was about a traveler on a personal journey. Cale’s new record, and first for the No Quarter label, is called Duskland, and the title hints at changes right away. Here, the focus is on a destination, but a liminal one. It is neither fully dark nor blazed in light. It’s also an album that stretches out into many voices, many perspectives. Though the songs still contain Cale’s knack for a bittersweet phrase, these songs have a sense of the surreal to them. The travelers in these songs seem lost in the landscapes around them. The lines between viewer and what’s viewed get blurred. On smoldering opener “Sundowner”, the narrator is bathed in the light of a “crimson moon” and reaches their hands up into the sky as if they might become one with it. “Basilica”, a beautiful instrumental in the middle of the record, seems to reach out into the corners and dark places of the titular space as if to become coated in its history, as if to glean something from the building’s survival of time.
These moments and others seem to suggest that, if Blue Rider was about the path, Duskland is about taking stock. There’s still plenty of travel on the record, from the character “branded as a fugitive” in “Sundowner” to the list of places left behind in “I Left the Old Cell” to the trail set upon in closer “Low Light Serenade”. But movement on the record is distance already traveled, or distances about to be. Instead, the album concerns itself with the moment, with the question of whether the traveler has learned anything from the past or has anything fruitful to find in the future. “Blue Moth” is a perfect, heartbreaking example of this. It vacillates between internal anguish (“Every dull pain that takes host in my brain”) and domestic comfort and care (“in the face of my love”). It’s a song that can both “stare into the void” and come back again. It never tips over into the darkness, but it’s not basking full-on in the sun either.
“Evensong” comes back to the isolation of Blue Rider, but there’s a new sense of perspective to it. “A game of chance has placed you here”, Cale sings over a ringing swell of guitars and voices and a shuffling beat. “Yet isolation brings no tears”, he continues, “you’ve come to terms with those fears”. The music itself suggests something larger than the individual. As the narrator comes to terms with an isolation, one that may or may not be temporary, voices fill the space around them, as if to suggest just living in the world can be its own sort of company. There’s a similar sort of relief in the confessions of “Dark Wings” and destructive admissions of “I Forged the Bullet”. There’s a sense of unease in each song. “Dark Wings” ends on the line “My heart is not at peace,” while “I Forged the Bullet” has a person who “returns to my door”. Whether that reunion is a joyous one or one of uncertainty is unclear. But even when things are “not at peace” on Duskland, there’s the chance they will be. On “Low Light Serenade” the narrator “braved the worst of storms / only to return to familiar shores.” The song doesn’t present this as a retreat, but rather as a decision, as a destination that can be seen anew after those storms. Duskland is full of travelers at rest, in a new or old place, with this quiet moment fraught with the combination of worry and hope over what comes next, and the belief that whatever came before will help them weather whatever that future may be.
Musically, Duskland fills in the spaces of Blue Rider. Though some songs, like “Dark Wings”, still echo out into space and ride on closely mic’d guitars and reverbed vocals, they still swell up with organ and horns and vocals. Many of the songs layer contrasting guitar lines on top of each other to brilliant effect. “Evensong” rolls dustily on acoustic guitar work, but chiming electric guitar casts a long shadow over it while in the distance, distorted fills scuff up the sweet pastoral feel of the song. “Changing Horses” pulls off a similar, if more muscled feat. The acoustic strums along, before electric guitars bloom over it into cascading waves of sound. “Low Light Serenade” starts as spare as any song in Cale’s catalog, but it just lures you in to hear the distant electric guitar notes (which recall Neil Young’s haunting score to the film Dead Man) and the soft lap steel. These songs can fill up space or carve it out, but either way Duskland marks another evolution in Cale’s sound, another shift in textures and sonic landscape that reflects the unique themes and beauties of this record. These songs are bittersweet, haunting yet hopeful, and endlessly listenable. Duskland is Cale’s golden hour.