REVIEW: daniel bachman's THE MORNING STAR
Updated: Feb 28, 2020
hallucinatory, bewildering, and absolutely essential
Bachman might be one of America’s true wunderkinds. Furiously prolific, he’s managed to churn out eleven albums since he began touring at 17. His mastery of American Primitive, an instrumental genre invented by the guitarist John Fahey, became apparent on his 2012 album Seven Pines. American Primitive doesn’t quite sound like anything else – maybe blues guitar played like a banjo. Bachman’s previous albums carry glowing reviews from Rolling Stone and NPR. Jesus I’m A Sinner and Orange Co. Serenade serve well as an introduction. They display Bachman’s uncanny (and often unsettling) ability to play multiple melodies at once. Sparkling reels intertwine with cavernous bass notes, highs twinkle out of earshot, and little tunes vine around his fingers. Where his earlier work displayed Bachman’s technical virtuosity, The Morning Star, his eighth album, sees him at his most experimental and abstract yet.
Coming in just shy of twenty minutes long, the track Invocation opens the album with singing bowls that fade into radio static. Hypnagogic drones provide the backing for rough, sandpapery strings and the tail end of a creaky fiddle. The end creaks back, forth, back, into the next track’s gentle ambients. Sycamore City starts with field recordings. Literally. Crickets, possibly at evening, against the occasional hush of passing cars. Birdsong floats in from odd corners. An idling pickup stops when its door shuts. Insects boil over. The recording is fuzzy, scratchy, as if someone left an old tape machine running in Bachman’s open window. The guitar, lost in thought, wafts in on accident. It settles into a series of partial reels, nosing its way down one path, turns, and drifts down another skitter of notes. Unresolved tension tightens the last half of the track. Clusters of notes threaten to dissolve into thin air. The taut half-chords relax into static, sighs of cars, what might be gentle breathing.
This tension between the said and the unsaid, the note and the silence, the arranged and the accidental, drives much of the album. Car is a sound-arrangement of AM radio, muffled engines, and gasping whistles. A woman’s voice crests in and out of static. Both parts of Song for the Setting Sun, a series that began on Bachman’s last album River, pose twangy guitar bursts against crickets, frogs, sirens and empty silence. The most straightforward track on the album, Scrumpy, coughs out scratchy notes that gather into apprehensive, leering chords woven between insect noises. The clang of a train crossing overtakes the crickets as a locomotive snorts and creaks over the track. New Moon, the final track, ambles into sparse, flexible slide guitar supported by solid fingerpicked bass notes. The song strolls into steady lows that fade into silence.
The Morning Star puts Bachman at the forefront of American Primitive today, and displays him at his genre-pushing best. Put it on and fall inside.
Samuel Gee is a student at UNC Chapel Hill.