The video for “Trust”, the first single off Gravenhurst’s fifth full-length album is rather wonderful, its flickering, gray-toned animations evoking a world that is both nightmarish and strangely beautiful, industrial and yet fancifully dreamlike. You could hardly capture the song any better than the video has, with its odd, contradictory measures of cool balladry and uneasy lyrical contents. It’s the kind of song you can imagine people slow-dancing to, absorbing only its yearning, romantic tone, and ignoring its more difficult imagery. “Trust is a hard thing to come by/These days” indeed.
“Trust” is the best song on The Western Lands, or at least the most marketable and easiest to absorb. However, it stands out only by a small margin from an album that works best as a whole, its MBV-ish drones melting into near folky ballads and everywhere Talbot’s luminous, three-dimensional guitar lines hanging mysteriously in the atmosphere.
The disc starts with a drum beat, a squiggle of electronic notes, and then “Saints” is underway in earnest, a liquid jangle of guitar under Talbot’s cool, disembodied voice. It’s hard to make out what the song is about; darker images about a desperate god and drowning flicker in and out of focus, a sense of purpose and forward motion animate the song. And yet, where you’re going, or what the purpose actually is remains cloudy. Perhaps it’s that meaning, just out of reach, that makes the song so dreamlike.
“Saints” leads into a couple of more rock-oriented songs, the undulating, synthy and slightly sinister groove of “She Dances”, the churn and drone of shoe-gaze-ish “Hollow Men”. Yet even in the hardest-charging moments of “Hollow Men”, Talbot’s voice emerges like a spectral image, spooky, beautiful and not quite human among the waves of distorted guitar. “Song of the Pines” with its circling, three-based guitar motif, ups the unearthly quotient considerably. The song’s character is hiding in a pine forest, waiting for an unnamed someone to come looking for him, “with searchlights streaming through the sea of trees.” The chorus, “Cold ash/smothered in fire”, could be borrowed from an old folk tune, though chilled and glossed over with 21st century alienation.
Talbot’s guitar work throughout is quite good, with fat, glossy tones that reverberate long after they are finished. The guitar is particularly striking on the title track, a surf-tinged, spaghetti Western-influenced gallop across echoing spaces, as well as on the lovely “Grand Union Canal”, where blue folk notes blossom and fade around a chilly vocal. If up to now, Talbot has reminded you primarily of artists like Swervedriver and MBV, in this cut, he turns more toward Talk Talk-ish atmospherics, couched in deep wells of silence.
Closer, “The Collector”, is even more overtly folk, especially in the beginning where it’s just strummed guitar and Talbot’s evocative voice. Yet there’s an unease even here, in lyrics that may be about a serial killer, or a lover, or a musician in a band. You feel you’re on the verge of unlocking the story, but never quite make the leap. Here, as elsewhere on the album, you’re carried along by the sheer beauty of the piece, yet disturbed and perplexed by its underpinnings.
That, finally, is what makes The Western Lands work so well. You can hardly help but be swept off by its sheer loveliness, yet even as you go, there’s a sense of foreboding that lends piquancy to the whole experience. It’s like a particularly beautiful nightmare, and it stays with you, even though you don’t really understand it.