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Psychic Hotline
Apple Music

The Dead Tongues

Psychic Hotline

Across the last 15 years, Ryan Gustafson of The Dead Tongues has emerged as one of modern folk’s most distinct voices. As idiosyncratic and spectral as the songs have sometimes been, Gustafson has always tied his visions and verses to the kinds of hooks you tuck away like talismans, pulled out in case of emergency. Dust, Unsung Passage, Desert: The Dead Tongues’ albums remain some of the more compelling and curious works in their field on this side of a century. The latest edition to The Dead Tongues’ catalog, the song-centric and magnetic Body of Light and the discursive and wonderfully elliptical I Am a Cloud, is 16 complete tunes split across interweaving and disparate albums.Before heading to Betty’s, Gustafson spent a month at “the Shack,” a primitive and private structure in rural western North Carolina, working on new material and sorting through piles of poems, sticky notes scattered across the windows, and stacks of free writing streams of thought. Most of the songs were written during this time – the exquisite “Daylily,” a warm little gift for his partner, or “I’m A Cloud Now,” a fever dream of song and spoken-word about the toggle between identity and ephemerality.

The creative energy was free flowing, deep and explorative, songs somehow coming together in a manner both freakishly fast and patient. In this energy and specific space the groundwork for the album was rooted, springing forth from the thick of the elemental and natural beauty these songs reference. The daylily on the cover of the album was picked from the land the shack is built upon – there’s a connection between the physical natural setting and the creative work itself, intertwined and natural bloom.

Gustafson wanted to continue with that explorative energy once he got into the formal studio, allowing it to lead the group of players assembled – the albums feature performances by Jenn Wasner (Wye Oak, Bon Iver), Mat Davidson (Twain), Matt Douglas (The Mountain Goats), Joe Westerlund (Califone, Megafaun), Jeff Ratner (Bing and Ruth), and more. Gustafson wanted to dedicate the studio time to not just recording songs but also making something new, with new improvisations.

The results feel at once casual and tremendous, the camaraderie and conversation between the players resulting in pieces that are lived-in but new. “Baby there ain’t no rules here/We can just slide,” Gustafson sings at the start of
Body of Light’s opening title track, establishing a collective credo inside this gorgeous anthem about finding sanctuary with someone else. Notice how it seems to nod to flamenco before lifting into electronic abstraction, or how Wasner’s harmonies summon the deepest Southern soul over electric phosphorescence.

And then there’s “Dirt for a Dying Sun,” where freight-train harmonica and spectral guitar frame a romantic dust-to-dust realism, where the best we can do is live wildly before we die. The characters on
Body of Light are restless, damaged, and beautiful, whether clinging to an underground amid gentrification’s high rises during “Wolves” or holding on to the most intoxicating wisps of love during “Moon Shadow.” The band plays as if they’re just meeting these people for the first time, responding with an admixture of recognition and astonishment.

The collected crew takes that approach to the next plane on
I Am a Cloud, an intersection of Gustafson’s tone poems and top-tier improvisation. “Formations” is an exquisite instrumental, a soul-jazz dream of horns and bells, bejeweled drones and broken rhythms. Remembering the birthday night he spent alone on an Irish cliff as the Summer solstice neared several years ago, Gustafson narrates “A Bridge” as if he’s peering into his own mind with wonder and surprise. The finale, “Even Here, Even Now,” is a spiral galaxy, with the songs of crickets, the hums of a Shruti box, and the touch of percussion lifting Gustafson’s mantric statement of purpose—to keep moving, to keep singing, no matter what may come. It is a wondrous piece of devotional music that seems to praise sound itself—the gift that can open us up, when we’re no longer sure that can even happen anymore.

“Sometimes it’s hard to be anyone anywhere it seems,” Gustafson, his voice as understanding as empathy, sings to start the second verse of “Hard Times, Sore Eyes,” the farewell for
Body of Light. That may read like a bummer, a concise and crippling encapsulation of our struggles to make meaning that’s as right as rain. But, really, it’s a permission slip to elide expectation, to try something different. Maybe in the past, Gustafson was seen as the singer-songwriter in a folk-rock band called The Dead Tongues. But when he started to let that go, he found something fascinating, new, and absorbing. Body of Light and I Am A Cloud are brilliant chapters written after Gustafson wondered if he’d closed the book, and they are, in turn, hard to put down.