Daniel Bachman probably didn’t set out to make a political statement, and at first blush, The Morning Star – his latest album and the first since his self-titled 2016 release – certainly doesn’t sound like one. It is, after all, a completely instrumental work. But shortly after Bachman moved back to his native Virginia (after a multi-year residence in North Carolina), the 2016 U.S. presidential election took place, and soon afterward the songwriter/guitarist began creating a personal reflection of the chaos that shook America following those startling election results.
Consequently, The Morning Star is a sometimes difficult, thorny collection of sounds, but also a quiet, almost Zen-like meditation. It’s a gigantic leap forward for this “outsider” artist who already seemed to be several steps ahead of the norm. Granted, the primitive folk sound for which he’s been known over the past few years has never really come close to any kind of mainstream, cookie-cutter sound, but here he sounds more like he’s blazing his own trail that any other time before.
Clearing the decks in the most audacious way possible, “Invocation” begins the album for a prodigious 18 minutes and 50 seconds. Combining the chime of singing bowls with insistent, Eastern-themed drones, cacophonous, feedback-laden AM radio broadcasts with languid slide guitar, the opening track isn’t so much a composition as it is a bold, improvisational assault. It’s Bachman venting his frustration, opening the floodgates of emotion, no matter how messy and ugly. It’s a hard piece to get through, but it seems frightfully necessary.
“Sycamore City” plays into the “field recording” theme that tends to dominate The Morning Star. Recorded either outside or in a room with windows open wide, the natural aura of the outdoors – including everything from passing cars to the buzz of insects – can be easily heard while Bachman’s knotty acoustic guitar rolls on, sometimes seeming tentative with the occasional long pause, but always coming off as deeply felt. It isn’t until “Car” that the more noise-oriented atmosphere returns, albeit in a much shorter, simpler method than the opening track. In “Car”, a Bontempi organ provides the insistent drone while Bachman’s AM radio soundscapes ratchet up the tension. It’s an unsettling, mysterious combination, particularly when the radio broadcast tunes into the fiery sermon of a gospel preacher.
“Song for the Setting Sun III” strips away the conceptual underpinnings of previous songs with Bachman’s lone acoustic guitar filling the room’s open spaces, in a style that’s reminiscent of a more sparse version of Leo Kottke. The lonesome, intimate feel of the song seems almost too personal, like the listener is hearing sounds from another room to which they’re not privy. At one point the field recording vibe is underscored by a passing ambulance siren (which, thankfully, doesn’t seem to faze Bachman) in addition to the occasional squeaking of Bachman’s chair. “Song for the Setting Sun IV” is, as its title suggests, a natural continuation of the previous song, but the minor-key drawl of the slide gives it a more mystical, almost forbidden quality.
The back-and-forth of folk-versus-noise is a fairly consistent dynamic throughout The Morning Star as the dense thicket of 12-string guitar that dominates the first half of “Scrumpy” – sounding like a psychotic, atonal take on bluegrass – slides effortlessly into the second half, which allows Bachman to catch his breath with simpler, more measured chord strums.
“New Moon” is an appropriate closer for The Morning Star, incorporating some of the meditative droning that was used to an almost excessive degree on “Invocation”, but it’s much quieter and restrained here. Bachman’s slide runs and expert fingerpicking are accompanied only by an understated organ drone. It’s the cool-down and reflection phase of the album, as it were. Like all of us, Daniel Bachman lives in a world dominated by chaos, anxiety and injustice. He doesn’t have the answers, but he has the means to translate those emotions into art, and we’re all invited to partake in the result.