Imagine if you will, Ray Davies taking leave of the dreary London winter in exchange for a secluded log cabin in the snowy American Northeast. Free of the bustling metropolis, stifling hierarchies of social classes, and human contact, Davies grows increasingly introspective while time passes slowly outside, crisp mornings giving way to dark, frozen nights. He’s got a selection of fundamental equipment in the cabin, set up next to the kindling and hearth: guitar, piano, percussion, and a multi-tracker. No brother to contend with, no Queen to rile him; just the space his body occupies and the sounds that reverberate within that sheltered room.
We’ll probably never know what that precise scenario would sound like, but Soltero comes gracefully close to the real deal. Soltero’s Tim Howard writes songs that possess the mortal weight of old folk ballads, but are delivered with the regal melodies and vocal style of Davies. The Tongues You Have Tied is the Boston-based singer-songwriter’s new full-length, a subtle one-man affair (save for some percussion, performed by co-producer Steve Mayone), arriving on the heels of last year’s band-oriented Defrocked and Kicking the Habit. It is a quiet, beautiful, and sometimes self-deprecating collection of songs that could be described as fear and loathing in love.
The album begins with the dreamy waltz “The Lightbulb Above You”, a jazz-infected progression buoyed by the sweet melodies plucked on piano and tremolo guitar. “You know I don’t mind / Sitting here wasting my time,” Howard admits to the object of his affection, before matter-of-factly adding: “So maybe I will hide / In the lightbulb above you / Just look up and laugh / When he tries to love you”. The song, abetted by a persistent drum machine, floats on hazily like a canoe in a calm stream; Howard stands by, unsure of just how to act or what to say, but perfectly focused on how to express that very feeling.
In the title track—which sounds like Stephen Merritt collaborating with Elliott Smith—Howard further examines this ingrained failure to take command of his desires: “All the words I had been practicing / Grew tired of me early and wandered off / So many thoughts, but I never said a thing / Wondering how this all would turn out”. You’ve gotta feel for Howard: he’s so insecure and self-defeating that even his own speech patterns can smell his fear. Indeed, in “Old-Time Promises”, Howard goes on to confess: “If these walls could talk / They’d just be laughing”. The album is full of these lines that are funny on the surface, but are delivered with such a deadpan grimace that they’re rendered irretrievably grave as soon as they leave Howard’s lips.
The folksy acoustic instrumentation throughout The Tongues You Have Tied compliments its humbled, shut-in songs: acoustic guitars wisp and wrinkle, ivory keys twinkle like starlight, vocals are double-tracked for maximum immediacy. In addition, there are a number of short instrumental tracks planted intermittently in the course of the album’s brief 30-minute runtime. With their Spanish-style guitars, blooming bike wheel melodies, and delicate organic textures, these instrumentals feel appropriately like little intermissions of nonverbal thought.
The Tongues You Have Tied is one of those tender, expressive albums that you pretend no one else knows exists, much like Iron & Wine’s The Creek Drank the Cradle or Elliott Smith’s self-titled masterpiece. It speaks volumes about the elusive nature of proper communication when one’s tongue feels perpetually tied up in confusion, bewilderment, or awe. “Lordena, it’s easy to think about you,” Howard sings in the closing track “Lordena, It’s Easy”, “But I wait for the day when the thinking is through”. While you hope, for the singer’s sake, that this day of self-realization arrives, you know you’ll miss all of Soltero’s thinking when talking is no longer sumptuously evasive.