Pan•American, "A Son"

Sunday, 10 November 2019 00:00 Anthony D'Amico Reviews - Albums and Singles

cover imageMark Nelson's Pan•American project has been very quiet over the last several years, as he has been focusing instead on his Anjou collaboration with former Labradford bandmate Robert Donne.  With A Son, however, Nelson returns to his solo work in bold and unexpected fashion (by his own quiet and understated standards, at least).  In fact, there is very little that stylistically recalls Nelson's post-rock or smoky ambient-dub past at all here, though his aesthetic generally remains a very moody and slow-moving one.  At the heart of A Son lies a handful of hushed vocal pieces that capture Nelson's vision at its most stripped-down, direct, and intimate.  Those pieces are occasionally quite wonderful, making this release a fitful creative breakthrough of sorts.  The rest of the album is not quite as striking, but the blend of songs, sleepily lovely ambient work, and hammered dulcimer pieces add up to pleasantly gentle and dreamlike whole.


I am definitely a person who is very prone to remaining in semi-comfortable patterns forever, so I have a deep admiration for Nelson's decision to pare the Pan•American palette down to little more than guitar and voice (especially since the previous formula was quite a winning one).  Aside from the conspicuous lack of percussion, electronics, and any nods to a jazz or dub influence, however, A Son is actually not a huge leap from some of the understated, slow-motion reveries that Nelson has recorded in the past.  The key difference lies primarily in what Nelson set out to do and how he went about making it happen, as he struggled with questions like "What does music do?",  "Where does music start?",  "How simple can it be?"  and "How honest can it be?".

Only Nelson himself knows how close he came to actually answering those rhetorical challenges, but he definitely took the simplicity and honesty parts very seriously.  In practical terms, that means that the album is much less lush and "produced" than previous Pan•American albums.  Instead, the heavy lifting is now shared by languorous guitar melodies and Nelson's quiet, laconic vocals.  More importantly, Nelson did not cast away his protective artifice solely in pursuit of greater simplicity, as there is a very real sense that he was straining to make a deeper and more meaningful connection than a flawlessly crafted marriage of lush chords, slow grooves, and heady atmospheres could possibly convey.  That said, some strong emotions can be quite ineffable, so the closing elegy for Heather Heyer is a shimmering and winding instrumental built from the traditional song "Shenandoah."  It is an absolutely gorgeous piece, but it is not the only one, as some of Nelson's own melodies are every bit as beautiful as those culled from timeless folk songs.

For me, the true heart of the album is the achingly lovely and sublime "Memphis Helena," which initially feels like a classic country song slowed down to a gently hallucinatory crawl.  That may very well be intentional, as Nelson has mentioned that The Carter Family were a major influence for this album (as were Jimmy Reed, Suicide, and June Tabor).  Though they are unquestionably minimalist heroes, Suicide is the stylistic outlier in that lot, as A Son is a very organic, acoustic, and Americana-inspired affair.  Nelson is impressively inventive in how he channels those disparate artists, however, and "Memphis Helena" is an especially great example of his transformative vision.  At its core, it is a beautifully crafted and hook-y song with an anthemic-sounding guitar motif, but it is sleepily blurred into a near-hypnagogic state.  In lesser hands, that would make the song maddeningly boring and bloodless, but Nelson uses that as the foundation for a slow-burning masterpiece that blossoms into an extremely cool outro of intertwining and harmonizing guitar melodies. 

Nelson never quite hits that perfect balance of songcraft and ambient haze again, but he has some success on both sides of that window elsewhere.  For example, "Brewthru" comes quite close to being a likably straightforward country/folk song, but it also sounds vaguely ghostly and nocturnal.   Elsewhere, Nelson dials down the intensity to such a low simmer on pieces like "Drunk Father" and "Muriel Spark" that their structures dissolve into something almost impressionistic.  In both cases, however, the pieces cohere into a lovely crescendo of quiet intensity: "Drunk Father" becomes a languorous swirl of blurred and quavering guitars, while "Muriel Spark" slowly becomes consumed by lingering clouds of distorted chords.  A Son shines brightest when Nelson casts a sleepy spell, then sneakily builds towards an elegantly controlled emotional punch.

The remaining pieces could best be described as instrumental interludes that bridge the more substantial songs together, though they do a fine job at sustaining the album's fragile state of slow-moving, soft-focus warmth.  A couple of those instrumentals, like the opener and "Kept Quiet," pleasantly highlight Nelson's newfound dulcimer prowess, but the others head in some interesting and divergent directions.  I was most surprised by the stark "Sleepwalk Guitars," which calls to mind Dean McPhee at his most meditative and subdued, but the twinkling and gently swaying reverie of "Dark Birds Empty Fields" is the only piece that comes close to rivaling the magic of the vocal pieces.  Still, the album flows together quite beautifully and Nelson never allows his lesser ideas to linger around long enough to overstay their welcome. 

That amounts to quite a lovely album that feels like contentedly lingering half-asleep under a warm blanket on a crisp fall day. However, that is both a strength and a caveat: A Son is not an album that smacked me in the face with its brilliance immediately, but it became increasingly entrancing once I listened enough to become fully immersed in its nuances and time-stretched languor.  Unfortunately, I suspect not everyone will have the patience to get that far, so A Son may be doomed to narrower appeal than its predecessors.  For some listeners, however, this more naked and direct incarnation of Pan•American will likely strike a much deeper chord than usual.  That makes it good art, but the line between art and entertainment is now a much blurrier one for this project.  To me, A Son mostly feels like an admirable and solid transitional album with an occasional flash of brilliance ("Memphis Helena" is an instant classic).  While I like the direction this project is headed, Nelson still has a bit further to go before his "man alone in a room with a guitar" side is as unambiguously great as some of the beautifully arranged and meticulously polished work from previous albums.  Nelson does not lack for vision, talent, or ambition, but he has chosen quite a challenging path for himself.

Samples can be found here.

Last Updated on Monday, 11 November 2019 13:25