how I was converted to the cult of Daughn Gibson, lost my car along the way, and regained faith in great American songwriting
“My daddy was a beast
He seemed to know well
When you bare that leash
You leave your teeth in trail
We could never keep to sleep
with secrets dying to tell
He laid a kiss in my little hand
and blew that fucker off to hell”
-first verse to “The Sound of Law”
It feels as though you are driving down an unlit, deserted highway at the darkest hour of nighttime. At some point (you can’t recall exactly when) you realize you have no idea where you are; the vast American landscape surrounding you, occasionally dotted with the eerie glow of 24/7 truck stops, looks both vaguely familiar and totally alien. The sky is mostly starless, the headlights flash upon mile markers and increasingly rare exit signs. You glance at your gauges: the emergency gas indicator lights up with a “ding.” As you contemplate holding out for the next gas station in lieu of turning around and burning fumes in the direction of the last one to pass you by, a song comes on the radio. Like the road, it is vaguely familiar and totally alien.
This is how I imagine the music of Daughn Gibson mysteriously coming into being. It probably has something to do with the fact that I was listening to his latest album, Me Moan, when my Dodge Intrepid overheated on the interstate last month; his other-worldly drawl was still permeating from the car speakers as I pulled off to the side of the road and bailed—just in time to watch it burst into flames. Not tiny flames, either: big Hollywood movie flames. Though by this point the music had stopped playing (I was running it through an iPhone connected to the car’s tapedeck, which I hurriedly disconnected before my timely escape), the voice was still ringing in and between my ears as I stood back, maybe thirty feet away from the billowing fire. I reckon I will forever associate this album with some form of the American highway, either in my memory or in my imagination. At the end of the day, the line separating the two is a pretty fine one.
In a way, I feel as though not enough time has elapsed for me to begin writing about an album that, so far, is the clear standout for my favorite record of 2013 (which is saying something, considering the renowned company it shares, including the magnificent returns of Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds and David Bowie—with Push the Sky Away and The Next Day, respectively—along with My Bloody Valentine’s long-awaited third studio album; also, the continued output of newer acts, including the AM gold of Iron & Wine’s Ghost on Ghost and the twisted synth-pop of John Grant’s Pale Green Ghosts). By the same token, I am dying to capture the unique thrill of Me Moan in my own words, to try and share the revelatory beauty of this discovery with others. So here goes it.
I should probably start at the beginning—the first mention I heard of the name “Daughn Gibson.” My friend Dan sent me a text message on a Friday night informing me that our local record store had gotten in a couple copies of a SubPop “Loser Edition” (first pressing on colored vinyl) of Me Moan; he picked up one for himself, and strongly suggested that my boyfriend and I pick up the other one. For this suggestion, I cannot thank him enough.
As advised, we popped out to the record store and eagerly brought our latest acquisition home. The side of the shrink-wrapping was carefully slit open, the inner sleeve removed, the artwork admired: here began the near-sacred ritual known to vinyl-lovers around the world—the induction of a new LP to one’s own, wholly idiosyncratic collection. Next step: the record is examined for paper residue, aligned and placed on the slipmat; the sight of the spindle sliding through the center hole is replete with sexual suggestiveness. Then that most thrilling of moments—that instant the needle hits the outer groove of the spinning record, and music is mysteriously aroused from tiny holes within. For me, this moment would be captivating regardless of the circumstance, even if the record in question was Jane Fonda’s Work-out Album. The excitement is multiplied tenfold when the first song is something as remarkable as “The Sound of Law.”
Two minutes and 55 seconds of sheer exhilaration, the album opener to Me Moan is one of the most promising first tracks of any album I have heard in my lifetime. But unlike a number of records that come to mind, Gibson’s actually delivers on the promise of its initial rush. Second track: a wavy synthesized melody paves the way for the click of a sparse drum machine loop which can only be described as “sublime.” Naysayers can label Gibson’s music with every lofty term of disapproval at their disposal, but “over-produced” is definitely not one of them. It could be said that “The Sound of Law” gripped me by the balls, and “Phantom Rider” was akin to the kiss of death in a dime-novel—the point of no return, if you will.
The thrill of the album never lets up or dissipates at any point on either side. Each song is its own richly detailed kaleidoscope, casting different colors on the mind’s eye and shading them in shifting amounts of light and darkness. The album artwork is a unique evocation of the content within: two blurry, naked figures in a tacky church sanctuary, seemingly in the midst of some violent brand of spiritual awakening—the speaking-in-tongues, snake-handling variety. Although Gibson has admitted a probing interest in the cult of religion, and it does come across quite vividly in his point of view, it is worth noting that none of the songs carry any overt religious reference (unlike his preceding album, All Hell, which features a number of audio samples recognizable as religious recordings—though the sometimes dense layers of sampling in Me Moan could very well comprise such samples, as well). If forced to conjure another visual metaphor, I would illustrate Me Moan as an almost-indistinguishable religious relic found in a dark alleyway, dripping with jizz, blood, and holy water. Sonically, it feels like an ethereal hybrid of the Eno/Byrne collaboration, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, and the Magnetic Fields’ Charm of the Highway Strip. But here I am attempting to attach recognizable labels to something which can only be defined as a totally distinctive, entirely inimitable new voice in American music.
I have read every interview with Daughn Gibson (né Josh Martin) that I’ve been able to get my hands on, and the one adjective that appears to pop up from interviewers more than any other is “Lynchian”—that is, reminiscent of the films of David Lynch. I must confess, this analogy struck me almost immediately while listening to Me Moan for the first time; but I think it is necessary to clarify for the un-initiated that Gibson’s music is anything but derivative. I think what we are responding to when driven to employ the “L-word” is the stream-of-consciousness effect of the lyrics and melodies, along with the effortless (though no doubt carefully orchestrated) ebb and flow of the songs. A number of current bands/recording artists have taken a deliberately cinematic approach to their songwriting in recent years, including Garbage, St. Vincent, and The Horrors; but Gibson has less in common with these recordings than he does with, say, the short stories of Flannery O’Connor and Ray Carver, the novels of Cormac MacCarthy and Carson McCullers, or the plays of Tennessee Williams. Whereas albums inspired by films tend to have an exterior effect (with Jim O’Rourke’s Nicolas Roeg-derived quartet as a notable exception), Me Moan feels more like an internal exploration. It doesn’t simply tell stories: it takes us deep inside the stories, allowing us to get lost on the way, finding ourselves again in increasingly unexpected—and increasingly disquieting—territory. But this is just one of many ways in which Gibson’s work could easily be distinguished from other recordings produced today.
In an era marked by social media and devolution—where outlaws are characterized by the willful ignorance, blatant misogyny, and oblivious materialism of many a redneck/gangster song—the time is long overdue for a cleverly crafted incarnation of the American lowlife; the kind that populated Elmore Leonard novels, John Huston movies, and Lou Reed’s Berlin, not to mention our country’s very own slums and back-roads. Nick Cave accomplished this in the nineties with Murder Ballads, especially in the brilliantly profane “Stagger Lee,” but I am loath to think of any American songwriter who successfully took this burden on himself (Eminem is credited with this achievement in the minds of many critics; though I might concede some inspired moments, his output generally seems to lack focus, let alone any kind of moral intelligence). In at least three songs on Me Moan (“The Sound of Law,” “Phantom Rider,” and “Pisgee Nest”), Daughn Gibson pulls the feat off with daring aplomb. In all eleven songs, his intensely suggestive prose constantly captures the lives and thoughts of characters on the fringes of existence, such as the mother of an unwanted child in “You Don’t Fade,” the misanthrope smoking a broken cigarette in “All My Days Off,” and the “man on the other side of luck” narrating the album closer, “Into the Sea.”
If Daughn Gibson’s songwriting is rooted firmly in earthy subject matter, it is also a model representation of that rarest strain of songwriting—the kind that celebrates the individuality of the performer, enabling the listener to bathe in the singular experience of the songs (there are many other performers working along these lines today, but few are as fully-formed and confident in their approach as Mr. Gibson). Discovering songwriters in this vein has always been a cherished and revelatory event for me; whether it is David Byrne or David Bowie, Siouxsie Sioux or Suzanne Vega, I practically live for the experience of music that transports me to a separate world devised by the artist. It is not escapism, per se—it is more about finding “relief from the itch of being,” as Nabokov once phrased it. What is more, these songs often come much closer to achieving some form of shared transcendence than those with an open agenda of social commentary, in that they enable listeners to examine themselves and others in a new light, without ever feeling like a puppet whose strings are being tugged at.
I am providing this background for my opinion because it is the only way I can conceive of contextualizing, without putting the record on for you to experience firsthand, the sheer freshness of this music. It rushes over and all throughout your body before you even have a chance to compartmentalize it—after all, it is hard to intellectualize something you can’t stop swaying your hips to. Suffice it to say, the songs on Me Moan are violent, horny, lurid, and sometimes tragic; they are also extremely smart and totally inspired. So at the risk of getting analytical, I would like to momentarily examine Gibson’s songs in the light of their stylistic innovation.
An admitted fan of country music, listing some contemporary songs (Kenny Chesney’s “A Lot of Things Different,” for one) alongside the classics (Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings), Daughn Gibson has elucidated in interviews his fondness for folk songwriting—writing about the little things you know, as opposed to the big things beyond your control. Indeed, the songs on Me Moan are, in essence, folk songs. They are also dance songs; funeral dirges; mini-operas. Equal parts disco and Dostoyevsky. He doesn’t appear to be reinventing the proverbial wheel, so much as disregarding its very existence. As stated before, there is a literary link to his songwriting, but it is not an adaptive one; the stories are either inspired directly from his own imagination, or drawn from local history (the haunting “Pisgee Nest” is about a reported “gang-bang” near his home town; “Franco” is about a child who committed suicide). They can be chilling and weirdly humorous, sometimes in the same breath. As far as I am concerned, this clarity of vision, alongside the idiosyncrasy of his language (his lyrics are peerless), places him in the pantheon of the great American writers he references when interviewed.
Speaking of disco, there is another musical thread running to Duaghn Gibson in my mind, but it is very possible (and more than likely) that it is not a conscious association on his behalf whatsoever. I am speaking of the obscure and short-lived country-disco genre, briefly popularized by the likes of Sylvia (check out “Drifter”) and Saskia & Serge (“Country Disco Train”); several established country acts dabbled in this territory as well, including Dolly Parton (the Heartbreaker album) and Terri Gibbs (“Somebody’s Knockin’”). It is an acquired taste, to say the least, but one that I have not been able to resist cultivating over the years. Whereas true country music is often delivered earnestly, sometimes severely, country-disco toyed more with the Opryland approach—heightening the showmanship and theatricality to a near-parodic extent. Gibson’s “Kissin’ On the Blacktop” could be said to achieve similar proportions, straddling the line between sincerity and kitsch; even the music video plays up this bemused detachment, with Daughn lip syncing in a dive bar with a sly grin on his face. In less capable hands, a song like this could tilt the balance of the album’s narrative in the direction of aimless superficiality. As conducted by Gibson, it actually enhances the album by providing an added dynamic, an extra dash of wry humor. It’s a damned catchy tune, to boot.
Another, more plausible thread could be drawn to songs by the late, great Warren Zevon—“Play It All Night Long,” in particular (maybe that’s where the jizz and blood analogy originated, come to think of it). Once again, though, I must make it perfectly clear for the reader that nothing on Me Moan appears obviously derivative. It does not harken back to an older form of songwriting; it is entirely current, and seemingly timeless. It could be said he picks up where Depeche Mode left off with “Personal Jesus” in 1989. Consider it country music for fans of the real deal, eager to hear it carried over into the 21st century, disenchanted by what has been passing under the misappropriated moniker for too long now: one might even call it an antidote to the hopelessly dumb antics of Kid Rock and Toby Keith (or: country music for people who like to party, but also read books).
Much has already been written about Daughn Gibson’s voice, so I won’t linger on it too long myself—though I might be inclined to do so under different circumstances. The one thing I find most remarkable about his voice is the ability to take a single word and out of it form a tiny universe. Take “The Right Signs,” for instance (a stand-out track, in my mind): it is composed of nine simple lines, yet it conjures a whole multitude of moods and details. It is in the way he draws out the last vowel in the phrase, “It’s a mystery to me,” before completing it with “why I fell for you;” and then repeats the trick with “My favorite dream/is loving someone new.” Each vocal delivery is as ingenious and textured as the next; collectively, they run the gamut from total reinvention of the English language to near-comical exaggeration. They also frequently evoke words and images that aren’t anywhere close to the lyric itself: when I finally sat down with the lyric sheet and read it as a whole, I realized that at least half of the songs had already borne an entirely different life in my head. By combining the real thing with the imagined interpretation (once again, a fine line to cross), the songs somehow become even richer.
Let me give you a specific example: in the elegiac “Franco,” the final lines of the chorus are, “I wish we had a kid/who never wanted to die.” The first dozen or so times I listened to the record, I interpreted it as, “I wish we had a kid/and never wanted to die”—which I took as a declaration of desire for a family obligation to remove (what I perceived to be) the narrator’s existential quandary. When I realized it was being told from the parents of a child who took his own life, it dawned on me that Gibson is operating in rather delicate territory, where the alteration of a single word can yield two entirely different—and equally affecting—emotional impacts. His command of this territory is masterful.
At the moment, my favorite songs on Me Moan are probably “Mad Ocean” and “Won’t You Climb” (though I am very partial to “Franco,” “Phantom Rider,” “The Right Signs”… hell, they’re all so terrific), a pair of fever dreams that fuse fragmented imagery with imaginative instrumentation and an oddly moving poeticism. They are, quite simply, unlike anything I have heard before, and they’ve provided an unexpectedly original soundtrack to the summer of 2013; I just cannot stop myself from listening to them over and over, with an excitement that recalls my days as a teenager obsessed with punk rock and eighties alternative. This must be what Christian zealots refer to when they talk about being “born again.”
An eagerly awaited package arrived in the mail yesterday: its contents—Gibson’s debut LP, All Hell. I zealously placed it on the turntable and dropped the needle; as expected, it is every bit as satisfying as the follow-up LP. Some of the songs I had already heard in video clips on YouTube and elsewhere, but hearing them together as a cohesive set was no less exciting an experience than listening to Me Moan for the first time. This guy is so good at what he does, I cannot help but be humbled when listening to his work—perpetually grateful for the strangely beautiful world he transports me to, the perverse joy of his peculiar language. Here is an artist whose work exceeds my wildest dreams, and gives concrete life to thoughts and emotions I’ve always had and never quite been able to define on my own.
Thinking back to my burning car on the side of the interstate, I can’t help but recall the circumstances behind the unfortunate episode: I was bound for Indianapolis to catch Low and Swans in concert, an event I was grossly disappointed to have missed out on (though relieved to have survived the accident in one piece). I later learned that Daughn Gibson played a show in Columbus that very night—about an hour’s drive from my hometown; since his website erroneously listed him as being in Detroit, reviews of the Columbus show indicated a small turnout. Low and Swans would surely have been a legendary live experience, but I would give anything to have been in Columbus that night. As it is, I cannot wait for Gibson to come around these parts again: I can already foresee myself going into an ecstatic state of near-religious fervor, not unlike the one depicted on the cover of Me Moan, as I hear and see these songs—now permanently imprinted in my brain and on my tongue—brought to gloriously unnatural life before my eyes and ears. I might close my eyes on occasion and see the dotted lines along that dark, lonely highway; the ever-burning glow of those all-night truck stops; the empty American landscape stretching for miles all around me. I will be dancing my ass off the whole time.
“All Hell,” a short film by Saam Farahmand
“Kissin’ on the Blacktop” music video, directed by Jeremiah Rouse