[18 March 2009]
Bloomington, IN’s David Michael Stith—occasional remixer, disciple of Sufjan (who signed him to Asthmatic Kitty), and multi-instrumental etherealist—chose an apt title for his first full-length. Not only is Stith possessed of an otherworldly voice that has a penchant for lamenting wails, but as an album, Heavy Ghost is filled with lingering spirits, shades of things that should have long ago departed for some other existence. A melange of regrets, unfinished thoughts and people working up the courage to do what needs doing, Ghost has the remarkable quality of feeling both barely there and utterly enveloping, an empty house come to life through sounds and melodies of indistinguishable origin.
Stith sets the tone early with second song (and first single) “Pity Dance”, which opens with easy guitar strums and a sort of artificial cricket chirp before layering its way into something far more lush and evocative. “Oh I ought to learn I can’t please myself every time”, Stith offers sleepily, a broke-down intro to a song that, if not as outright regretful as its name might suggest, is certainly tinged with the knowledge that we create most of our own problems. By the time Stith moans, “Come on fire / Don’t leave me waiting for the world to replace me”, he needn’t say too much more. But to his credit—after a dense, swirling spectral orchestra ascends into the mix, piano, strings, and handclaps equally foreboding—he offers the conciliatory “I have been sleeping with the lights on ever since I left you”, a touching recognition both of his own mistakes and that, despite them, he will continue. Stith has something of a gift for this kind of world-weary resignation, a sense that he might perhaps prefer to escape but will soldier on regardless, armed with the muted optimism that he might somehow learn from his regrets.
We see this sentiment pop again on “Thanksgiving Moon”, another song whose simple beginnings slowly build to a lush soundscape. Though early on Stith mentions—such a delicate voice seems too precious for something like a declaration—“We’ll start over / We’ll start new this time”, it’s not long before his more ambivalent nature shines through; soon after, he tosses off “We’re all stars / Yes, yes I know”, less a recognition than a dissolution of some pretty if misguided sentiment. When it comes time for his closing lines, “Is that a star / Oh, shallow victory”, we’re hit with the full brunt of this kind of advancing but injured mood, Stith creating a character moving reluctantly, but still moving.
Though Stith tends to keep his themes close, much to the album’s benefit, he is adept at adjusting his mood. “Morning Glory Cloud” is an exultant tune, Stith celebrating the fact that he “only realized today / [he has] been hiding”, his oft-used wail something more celebratory here, an affirmation of a new day dawning. “Creekmouth” is a seemingly darker, more foreboding song, backed by the thump of tribal drums, though he does find some kind of hope in clinging people and cankered waters. On “Pigs”, he seems to feel an urgent need to break with the lingering halfheartedness of much of the rest of the album, opening with “I’m through accepting what you want from me” in as angry a manner as his voice will allow, and the song’s easy strums betray a restless mood, a man fighting against his own nature to feel strongly.
Still, though, the overall mood is more ambiguous, that of a man caught in some kind of in-between, armed with the knowledge that change should be afoot, but not always so eager to move forward. Set against a rich, ethereal backdrop, it’s a mature, moody debut, the type that makes one hope Stith will choose to linger on the music scene for some time to come.