With Whole & Cloven, Bowles's follow-up to his excellent, cohesive Nansemond, he pushes in a new direction, seeking out new ways to tie an album together, wondering whether or not the broken can still seem complete.
In retrospect, it seems like Nathan Bowles was biding his time, toying with our expectations a bit in his solo records. Considering all his work outside of his own music, playing all kinds of instruments for Steve Gunn or playing with Black Twig Pickers or collaborating with Michael Chapman, maybe we should have known. But if you go back to A Bottle, A Buckeye, Bowles's discography plays like a slow-building story, one in no hurry to reveal where it's going, and one prone to shifting the path once you get a foot on it. That first record ran through its first half with what you might expect of a banjo player. Five short, folk tune plucking out those dust-dry, rolling notes sweetly at every turn. But later songs on that record, like "Beans" and especially "Uttararama", started to stretch structures to their breaking point, moving from tradition in the center of the room to something stranger happening in the corners.
His next record, the brilliant Nansemond, blew the walls off that imagined room, collaborating with other players and other textures to expand his banjo compositions into these otherworldly experimental epics that still felt coated in the same, age-old dust. It was record both contemporary and rooted in yesterday, with Bowles' gruff, howling vocals bridging the gap between the two. Now, for his most recent record, Whole & Cloven, Bowles changes the elements again. He plays all the instruments himself on this record, and pairs down the overt, studio layering of Nansemond for more organic textures. The resulting record is more fractured (read: cloven) and yet still somehow cohesive (read: whole) in its structure. It's not even that the record can be both complete and fractured, but rather the amazing thing is that one leads to the other. That the very broken nature of the record is what unified its sound.
The album is bookmarked by songs that seem like more complex versions of what you might head on A Bottle, A Buckeye. Opener "Words Spoken Aloud" builds a percussive banjo melody, backed by distant, rasping percussion, and just rolls along hazily. It changes shape, growing more insistent and pressing as it builds, but the song just lets the banjo carve out echoing space. Closer "Burnt End Rags" is downright playful, a joyful instrumental tune that pays tribute to the rag tradition rather than trying to reinvent it. "Words Spoken Aloud" ripples into the record, and "Burnt End Rags" ripples backward, and the music in between happens somewhere in the wake where those two ripples meet.
The most immediate stand-out in the record is the 11-minute "I Miss My Dog", an openly nostalgic and sad tune that lets that echoing space around the banjo get the story started. Bowles phrasings at the song's start seem to be a series of false starts, melodies left unresolved as, perhaps, the player is overcome with emotion. Then the notes start to blend, to stretch and bleed into one another, and the song starts to take shape. It's one of Bowles's most amazing compositions to date, as the song slowly blooms with full banjo rolls and backing piano, the song achieves a kind of narcotic gauzy feel, the layers complicating one another, but you never quite get lost. At its heart, the organic echo of each notes sounds, reminding you of the song's solitary, heartbroken start.
It's the album's biggest piece, but it stands in contrast to the other songs here, rather than acting as a unifier. "Gadarene Fugue" casts similar shadows, but it's more propulsive than "I Miss My Dog" and draws on Eastern music traditions to create a new twist on Bowles's ever-hard-strummed zeal. "Blank Rang/Hog Jank II" is literally split in two, the first half a bittersweet, pastoral number that gets cut off for the bright stomp of the second half. The song follows "Chiarascuro", the album's only piano track, where Bowles whips up a storm by just rolling over the same clusters of notes over and over again until you almost feel them making a fog around the piano. It argues a direct line between piano and banjo effectively, since both clang and snap to life when Bowles plays them.
Within all these complex instrumentals is the one vocal track, "Moonshine is the Sunshine", Bowles's take on a song by Jeffrey Cain. In keeping with the album's fractured-yet-unified structure, Bowles knits together two versions of Cain's song, mixing and matching the playful lyrics, but the result is a straight-up folk stomper. Whole & Cloven draws the listener in with each tune, but the shift to the next song is always a jarring one. That jarring works, though, shaking you back to attention, only to lead you down a new musical alley. Nansemond was Bowles proving he could make a complex capital-A Album. With the equally great Whole & Cloven, Bowles pushes in a new direction, setting out not to make a cohesive album so much as to seek out new ways to tie an album together, to figure out whether or not the broken can still seem complete. With Bowles new record, to paraphrase Leonard Cohen, it's the cracks that let all the best, most revealing light through.