You could be forgiven to mistaking Backward Masks, the fourth full-length from Athens, Georgia’s Summer Hymns, for a hammock record, something dreamy and pretty undemanding, the perfect foil for lazy afternoons. Indeed, the songs slip by in a narcotic haze, soft guitar chords and Zachary Gresham’s gentle, careworn voice reminding you of acoustic Neil Young. Yet like Neil, Gresham has a knack for making the complex seem simple, the edgy and eccentric universal. I mean, come on, have you ever listened to “A Man Needs a Maid”? It’s dark, freaky stuff, all about lust and love and not being able to handle either. You can hum along a half dozen times before you realize how twisted it is. Gresham’s like that, the unassuming guitar slinger that everyone says, “I can’t believe it. He seemed like such a nice young man” about afterward.
For instance, the opener, “Way You Walk” starts out like a standard soft rock girl appreciation song, discrete guitar jangle and muted percussion swaying like womanly hips under lyrics like, “I like the way that you walk/ Walk into the room… You’re having the time of your life.” There’s a subtle shift, though, just before the two minute mark, a twitching, anxious bass line, a darkening chord change, and the song takes an obsessive, angry turn. “I traded in my contacts/ For Hulk covered contacts/ Now everything I see is/ Livid green/ And my pants are getting tighter/ And my angle’s getting wider/ So baby/ Don’t push… me,” Gresham croons and suddenly, we are in a different song altogether. You could easily miss the turn, though, cruising on through the still mostly-sunny musical backing and not noticing the complications easily, or even ever. You might even drift on past the helplessly melancholy song ender, a lyric that goes “The soon becomes the now/ The now becomes what happened not so long ago,” and a fill that that sounds like the drummer suddenly threw his sticks at the drums and stomped off.
That sort of dissonance is all through this album, the lovesick pathos of “Pity and Envy” morphing somehow into visions of prostitutes handcuffed to hotel sinks, the gentle fidelity of “When the Bombs Fall” interrupted by images of the world’s end. However, lyrical difficulty is not the only thing that makes this album more complicated than it seems. Musically it’s also incredibly dense with ideas, instruments moving in and out of focus, playing a few bars and then subsiding into the background. Gresham brought in more than 15 players to augment his core band, Phillip Brown and Chris Riser, for this album, and many of the songs move placidly along on country rock surfaces, while hiding roiling currents of psyche and baroque pop underneath. “The Way You Walk” slips in a brassy break between its happy and sad sections, and “Limousine” layers three or four different keyboard takes, including a slinky Latin line, into its hazy, sensual melodies.
Even where the elements are simple, musical elements emerge in short and heady succession, a guitar motif underlining a key lyrical transition, a slither of bass underpinning amorphous clouds of altered guitar. The wonderful “Start Swimming” for instance, begins with the simplest of orchestrations, ringing guitar, voice, cool keyboard chords and bass lines that snakes through the lower registers. The interplay between these parts, though, is almost magical, the keyboard shimmering through in one measure, the bass answering in the next, the vocals wreathed like sun-tipped fog over the whole enterprise. “Bombay Brown Ink” is very nearly as good, Gresham beginning plaintively, a Shakey tremor in his voice with the lines, “You could be the one to remember/ Her smell… in your sheets,” but the song gains heft as it goes on with strummed guitars and melancholy pedal steel and rifle shot drums. A sweetening surge of strings comes in, then departs — you’re not even sure you’ve heard it right. The song is as simple as could be on one level, and far more complicated than you can take in on another.
Not that all this should detract from your listening experience. There’s no need to write a thesis. You can definitely take Backward Masks to the hammock, if that’s your pleasure. Just expect a few disturbing, evocative dreams if you drift off. Nothing is ever as easy as it seems.