Cian Nugent’s come-up has an old school ring to it. His is the increasingly rare tale of someone fully mastering a craft (in his case, the guitar) before building upon it. It’s the journeyman narrative of Jimi Hendrix coming up behind Wilson Pickett and Sam Cooke, Duke Ellington tickling the ivories of Harlem clubs before taking charge of the road squad, or even more recently Blake Mills, session guitarist turned cult songwriter. Cian Nugent’s first couple records, Doubles and Born With the Caul, were sprawling, masterful suites of John Fahey style guitar work, at times backed up by an attentive ensemble, which proved he’s got chops for days. His decision to move into singing and songwriting on his latest, Night Fiction, was in many ways a well earned choice. But it was also a brave one. Night Fiction, eight of nine tracks of which are singing tunes, tackles an almost entirely new set of skills, some of which Nugent’s previous work prepared him for, some not. It’s a bit like Michael Jordan when he moved to the MLB, bringing along both his basic athleticism and now-useless ability to dunk.
The album starts off in right field. On “Lost Your Way” and “First Run”, it’s as if he’s traded wholesale the droning dissonance and dark harmonic movement of his guitar work for partly-cloudy Dead jams. Besides the requisite Arabian Jerry noodling, the underlying chord changes are relatively simple and major, near devoid of the versatile voicings and changes in his previous work. The songs, like so many Allman Brothers tunes looking to get stretched, go light on the chorus and hard sell the off-hits. Song-wise, they’re the weaker of the bunch.
But the album opens up towards the middle, on standouts, “Things Don’t Change That Fast” and “Shadows”, which provide a bit more to grab onto. “Shadows” slows down and at last lets the instrumentals breathe. Not unsurprisingly, Nugent speaks louder through his tearful electric turnaround and biting quarter note rhythm part. The extended outro is a glimpse into Nugent at his best in a full band setup — a well-arranged sweet spot where his strengths are welcome at the party. It’s immediately followed by “Lucy”, an instrumental with Nugent’s characteristic feel for the bittersweet pastoral, a breath before the sparse “Things Don’t Change That Fast”, a ballad in the tradition of Young’s Harvest. Lush with tremolos and swinging ’70s bass hooks, it additionally packs the record’s most memorable chorus. Extra bonus points for the clearest sign of an Irish accent.
The extended “Year of the Snake” takes us out. What begins with a sparse electric Fahey number picks up into a droning Dark Star jam before swiftly ripping the joint into full-on A-Side Exile territory. In its 11 minutes, Nugent’s entire musical journey unfolds before our ears, the better and the worse. In the end, if Night Fiction isn’t the record to herald Cian Nugent’s full-on arrival into the echelon of songwriters, it’s a compelling statement of intent which reveals a new side to the maestro, hard at work navigating the world beyond the blues. The recordings have a live and dirty feel to them, which makes them endearing and easy to cosy up to on the phonograph, even if the songwriting doesn’t always warrant a close headphone listen.