The constants in the music of David Eugene Edwards are so strong that they tend to overshadow the evolution of his work over the past decade, since his former band, 16 Horsepower kicked up a cloud of righteous dust on 1996’s Sackcloth ‘n’ Ashes. Heavy (and sometimes heavy-handed) Christian themes and a propensity for minor chords have marked just about everything Edwards has committed to tape. But what makes Mosaic, his latest under the Wovenhand name, different from Sackcloth, or even from WH’s self-titled debut? More than you’d think, actually. Mosaic moves Edwards further away from the gothic hillbilly stomp of his earlier catalog into territory at once more personal and exotic. With the exception of downright sunny instrumental “Bible and Bird”, Mosaic eschews familiar rural American song structures and arrangements, relying more heavily on echo, drone, and percussion drawn from a wide range of cultural influences, from Tuvan throat-singing to Eastern European gypsy folk.
The Tuvan influence shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. Edwards covered the traditional “Horse Head Fiddle” back on 16 Horsepower’s Folklore. It was noted then that the horse culture of central Asia and its music have much in common with that of the American West—making it logical inspiration for a songwriter inclined both toward frontier themes and earthy spirituality. “Breathing Bull” opens Mosaic with sustained harmonica notes floating eerily over lower tones from an instrument I can’t recognize. I’m not even sure it’s a harmonica I’m hearing, so stretched are the tones, ghost-thin, evaporating like fog. It’s a brief intro, not very substantial in and of itself, but it’s an important mood setter, establishing right away that you’re being led into a different world than that of whatever you were doing before you put the record on. “Winter Shaker” follows, built on an undercurrent of ominous roar and layered with hurdy-gurdy, organ and guitar played more for its percussive value than for melodic support. “The circle is vicious / Of thoughts altogether vain / Haunted by battles lost / Still living on Indian land” Edwards rolls out in his familiar, dramatic timbre, and later, a forceful barrage of “hallelujahs” that feel inspired in equal parts by his lineage from a Nazarene preacher and a traveling Native American animal trainer (read Jennifer Kelly’s interview with Edwards here).
“Whistling Girl” is built around banjo and a few splashes of piano, but the rhythm is still the focus, rigid enough to maintain the omnipresent dire urgency of Edwards’s song, yet still varied and full of nuance. Drummer Ordy Garrison has been Edwards’s primary collaborator in Wovenhand, much the same as Jean Yves-Tola was in 16 Horsepower, providing an anchor for songs like “Elktooth”, which would otherwise fly off into the void. Edwards has grown fond of dragging his words over and through measures rather than keeping them confined to a set meter, here repeated “double-minded man” over and over until meaning starts to leak from the words. “He is a tooth tapper / Dressed in cold / As told to the Gauls of old / Arranging his word / In a controlled burn,” he sings, as polite a description of a French-seeming flip-flopper if ever there was. Wovenhand is all about conviction, in faith and in action, conviction so zealous and unrelenting as to come off kind of creepy sometimes to those not used to it, including me. But the appeal of Wovenhand has a lot to do with hearing someone so single-mindedly devoted, with a complete absence of the warm fuzzies that tend to accompany contemporary religious-themed music. Whether declaring “There is a sorrow to be desired” on the highlight, up-tempo “Dirty Blue”, or croaking the lament “It reads lame now written down / It is frail now that it makes its sound” on the murky, frightening “Slota Prow”, Edwards continues to go where he is called whether you follow or not.