by Craig Howieson
On paper, Will Johnson paints the picture of a restless figure. A frontman, guitarist, producer – as well as a generous collaborator and guest musician – he is nothing if not prolific. From fronting Centro-matic and South San Gabriel, to collaborating with Jason Molina, playing drums with Monsters of Folk, and hooking up with Pedro The Lion’s David Bazan to form Overseas, Johnson has displayed a near inexhaustible work ethic, crafting a formidable back catalogue along the way.
His solo work nestles nicely amongst his varied output, presenting a distillation and refinement of all the musical touchstones he has accumulated. His uniqueness comes not in the tools he uses, but in the moods he creates. Wire Mountain, his sixth solo record and first for Keeled Scales, contains within it a wilder streak than that of his label mates; a rustic, forsaken Americana tapped into the mains: a lonesome brooding awaiting the hungry squall of feedback.
The southern rock elements of Wire Mountain channel the grizzled knowing of Drive-By Truckers, a likeness strengthened by the comforting familiarity Johnson’s voice shares with Jason Isbell. The record’s most expansive moment, Cornelius, is a colossus – a booze-soaked country rock epic ringing with guitars that cascade in a tale of sin and redemption. As Jon Dee Graham’s electric guitar pierces through the fog, he is somehow capable of conjuring the scene of a wake – the sight of hands slapped on backs, and the tear streaked laughter of remembrance.
Johnson’s voice is a contradiction of warmth and solitude. There is a sorrowful sparseness in his delivery even when accompanied by the stunning voice of Lindsey Verrill, as felt on the haunted temperance of A Solitary Slip. Sitting at the heart of the record and emerging out of the dust left by Cornelius, it trembles with a search for meaning, a resolute determination to repay the loving trust given by another, or at least the commitment to never stop trying.
In addition to his musical abilities, Johnson is also a talented painter, and as a keen baseball fan, many of his works focus on the sport. That muse is also evident here on album opener Necessitarianism (Fred Merkle’s Blues). It is a bluesy stomp through the tale of Fred “Bonehead” Merkle whose infamous base-running mistake cost the New York Giants the game against the Chicago Cubs, and ultimately resulted in them losing out on the National League pennant 1908. It echoes with the same faded American romanticism of the prologue of Don DeLillo’s masterpiece of contemporary literature Underworld, which itself details another infamous night in baseball history, when Bobby Thomson hit the home run to win the National League pennant for the New York Giants in 1951. Both share in the same studied dissection of the American utopia – the major moments relished in and then forgotten by the multitudes, the creation of life and death moments that history resigns to mere footnotes in a journal.
Throughout the record’s more electrified moments, there hangs a nervous anticipation – the thrum of warming amplifiers and the static in the air before a lightning strike. Yet, in spite of the circling disquiet, there is an unspoken resolution found on the closing instrumental (You were) Just Barely You. Within the muted accents of piano chords and the scratches of fingers on strings, there is solace in the hope for reconnection, and a chink of light filtering through weather battered trees.
Johnson hasn’t redefined the genre on Wire Mountain. What he has done is to assimilate all the elements of what he does best without ever masking it in an impenetrable sheen. It bleeds with a poignant grace that is still raw enough to be relatable. Painting in bruising shades of black, purple and blue, he emphasises the slow burn of darkening clouds. There is an overwhelming atmosphere to the record that penetrates beyond the consciousness. It is an atmosphere to revel in, and one which you are unlikely to find on many other releases this year.
Secret Meeting score: 79