I was recently listening to All Hell, the debut album by Daughn Gibson, and queued up right after it in iTunes was Lil B’s The Basedprint 2. As the last track of All Hell segued into the opening track of The Basedprint 2, I thought it was the same damn album. That’s ’cause All Hell has a somewhat similar cloud-rap sound — without the rapping, of course, but the music’s something like a Clams Casino instrumental. But as soon as B’s voice kicked in a few seconds later, that dream ended. I replayed it and realized that “NYU” sounds much glossier and sunnier than All Hell, an album that’s covered in gorgeous mystery and ominously slow-drizzling doom.
Like Elvis and Joy Division’s Ian Curtis, Gibson has a powerful baritone voice. Also, like them, Gibson pulls from a profound darkness and is capable of molding a three-minute pop tune out of a messy history of random dread. All Hell begins with “Bad Guys,” a short, twangy country-western song that introduces the album’s themes: the frailty of goodness, the dream of redemption, agony, the road, the return of forgotten nightmares and ghosts, wrestling with one’s former selves, (the absence of) God. “I met a lot of bad guys along the way,” sings Gibson. Like the nine songs that follow, “Bad Guys” is grounded on a looped sample, and then Gibson adds guitar, keyboard, and percussion parts.
The vinyl static and looped piano phrase on “In The Beginning” sounds like a less suicidal Leyland Kirby piece due to its shuffling beat and delayed guitars, and Gibson quickly complicates the trajectory of his protagonist by going back in time: “It wasn’t me, I’m not the same guy,” he claims, seemingly returning to the period before it all went to shit. The blurry, screwed vocal sample on “Tiffany Lou,” a song about a girl tormented by a recurring episode of Cops in which her dead father gets arrested, borrows chillwave tropes but makes them much more chilling. “A Young Girl’s World” is a drunken, country-lounge track, and on “Rain,” the song that sounds the most like an indie chamber-pop number, Gibson sings like what’s-his-name from Crash Test Dummies. On “The Day You Were Born,” Gibson resurrects Johnny Cash above what sounds like a mbira sample or a clip from Señor Coconut’s El Baile Alemán.
The current musician most similar to Daughn Gibson is Alex Hungtai of Dirty Beaches. Both bring Elvis up to speed, positioning the King’s bleak crooning in a more contemporary sonic context. But while Dirty Beaches tends to lean toward a nasty, though fairly traditional, rock ’n’ roll framework, Gibson’s music is far more unique. Both use samples, but Gibson slows his down and makes them sinisterly resonate. His sample-work recalls both cloud-rap producers and ambient artists like Kirby and Jefre Cantu-Ledesma. But most striking is that he somehow manages to introduce country music, and a more traditional singer-songwriter approach, into this equation. And while this combination seems like a train wreck waiting to happen, Gibson makes it work.
Popular country music prides itself on reproducing tradition; its lack of innovation and inability to evolve with shifting trends is one of its virtues, both musically and ideologically. From Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams, Sr. to Keith Urban and Jason Aldean, not much has changed. Sure, there are electric guitars, pre-ripped jeans, and hair-stylists now, and Miranda Lambert packs stadiums with revenge-songs about setting her lovers’ trailers on fire, but the basic songwriting themes and instrumentation have not evolved with the times. And this is what makes All Hell so refreshing and special: It wipes away the dust and brings fresh ideas into the room. Finally, a musician whose record collection, or iTunes library, sounds as if it could contain albums by Cash, Conway Twitty, Elvis, Balam Acab, The Caretaker, Portishead, and Washed Out created music that synthesizes these diverse influences. It was only a matter of time before fans of country music got their hands on samplers and began integrating contemporary techniques and sounds from other music communities into traditional country music. Daughn Gibson’s All Hell proclaims that the time is now.