Let us now relinquish collegiate classification and pithy pigeonholing. That ain’t no way to open a dialogue on an album as broad-minded and swelteringly cinematic as Chris Whitley’s Soft Dangerous Shores. The 11th album of Whitley’s career, Soft Dangerous Shores has a way of blurring customary rationale and commonsensical definition. As a songwriter and performer who has nurtured his individuality through the transfiguration of folk-blues archetypes, Whitley’s been the frequent victim of oversimplified categorization (enabled, in part, by the traditional feel of records like Dirt Floor and War Crime Blues). Such reductionist charms—however lazy or accurate—simply won’t work on Soft Dangerous Shores, which may be both the most experimental and accessible release in Whitley’s discography: its genre mash-ups are fearless exaltations of integration, and its humid, plainspoken delivery (both tempting and tempestuous) pushes familiar buttons.
It’s not a blues record, not a soul record, not an electronic record, but a record of sensations and movements and tastes. Its evocative sound—assuming elements of the aforementioned genres but showing no biased allegiance to any of them—is dense with the heat of human contact, a spiritual obsession with the flesh, winded with desire and reeling with sex. With Soft Dangerous Shores, Whitley is operating in some singular, indefinable realm of inspiration and creativity, eschewing stereotypes and rule book logic for primal sensation. An album that expands its lungs with such rich, multi-geographical air could only be the product of someone as restless and uprooted as Whitley: its burrowing National Steel guitar reflects his Texas upbringing, while the critical percussion, synths, and samples are glimpses of a broader—via NYC, Belgium, and Dresden—sensibility.
Whitley’s German rhythm section from 2003’s Hotel Vast Horizon (bassist Heiko Schramm and drummer Matthias Macht) returns to the fold, along with producer Malcolm Burn (who helmed Whitley’s 1991 debut Living With the Law). They all play prominent roles in the formation of Soft Dangerous Shores’ swirling cauldron of sound, a churning whirlpool of textural gales that is alternately entrancing, conjuring, and deceptively monotonous. Each song implements a groove at the outset that is followed through to its end; initial presentations are slightly amended and augmented in the course of each performance, but the mutations are carefully storyboarded and patiently executed. Opener “Fireroad (For Two)” sets the record’s style and approach accordingly: a cataclysmic strum on the guitar unleashing the tortured and naked groove; Whitley’s thrillingly hoarse voice occasionally trespassing into falsetto; and the rhythm section, fidgety and authoritative, anchors it all down while synths and samples breech the groove.
Burn’s production holds everything together like a beautifully dilapidated building, constructing a sound whose character is chipped and flaked, but resilient—an antique model that reflects the quizzical modernity surrounding it. Macht’s incensed drums expand and echo in the urgent title track, battling the translucent synthesizers for bragging rights. “Last Million Miles” gurgles like Stevie Wonder in an abandoned warehouse; all the wah-wah-inspired ricocheting and bleeding make it difficult to discern which instrument is behind which sound. It’s all just slathered together, mucky and heady and funky and pulsing with life. The mix is allowed its most inspired brainstorming session in the six-and-a-half-minute “City of Women”, an impressionist blend of sounds that seems to hover in place beneath Whitley’s voice, the icy synth tones cutting through the speculative haze.
If Dirt Floor and War Crime Blues argued Whitley’s underrated status as a fierce guitarist, then Soft Dangerous Shores is all about his voice. Like honey laced with gravel, Whitley’s voice digs into the record’s aural architecture, creaking under its floorboards, a wonder both inviting and intimidating. He channels the bedside seduction of a parched and exhausted Al Green on “City of Women” and “Her Furious Angels”, the latter a song from War Crime Blues given the full-band treatment and transformed into a sultry slice of primordial R&B. He gives himself over to the near-metallic grind of “Medicine Wheel” and the dead-man float of “End Game Holiday” like trees yield and bend to the rhythm of the wind. All the while, Whitley keeps the mood mysterious, alluding to some kind of menacing arousal or arousing menace, speaking of tangibles and whispering in code.
Reflecting the highly insinuative music, Whitley’s lyrics are all about feeling, imagery, and cognizance; like Richard Buckner, he crafts scrupulous poetry that’s emotionally instinctive and surmountable. His ideas, no matter how elusively delivered, are rooted in universal sensations: there’s mortality (and old blues residue) in lines like “How long I be chased / ‘Fore the earth take me in / From the valley I taste / Whole futures on her skin”; uninhibited promises of lust (“Steal me now / Into breathing rooms / Under steaming oaths / Till my lips could trace the shade between your thigh”); and the frequent intertwining of life, love, and death (“Looking out from your bed / Like I just got born”). They’re mutable words and, like Soft Dangerous Shores’ music (haunted funk, wounded soul, reconstituted blues), part of a larger, moldable canvas. Whitley calls it a “Euro-trash/folk-blues thing”. But a record as good as this doesn’t need to be defined—only adopted, weathered, and, with any luck, embraced.