Like his previous (and gorgeous) album Guitar & Voice, Eric Chenaux’s Skullsplitter is an experiment in magnetic poetry, a juxtaposition of opposing poles (namely heavily processed guitar and soft crooning) bent toward each other in forced unity, a bizarrely resonant statement of truth constructed from arbitrary strands of manipulated phonemes squashed together without regard for formal grammar. However, much like when you compose a poem from a lifetime’s worth of cheekily gifted magnetic poetry packs (expanding your expressive possibilities beyond even what you would consider for a nonmagnetic sonnet), Skullsplitter comes off as an unrestricted celebration of balladry rather than an absurdist triumph over linguistic limitations. Spaces between symbols that are normally filled in by your imagination are here filled with vivid images that pour from outside-in. It is therefore somewhat paradoxical that, while Chenaux bends all sorts of rules as he tinkers with folk balladry as a genre, Skullsplitter’s resultant conventional gorgeousness often overshadows its moments of off-road innovation.
Fortunately, Chenaux signposts his intentions with precision on Skullsplitter, even when flawless transitioning between disparate sounds sometimes results in muted dynamism. Opener “Have I Lost My Eyes?” settles a warm, wafting atmosphere through blossoming wah guitar, which Chenaux cuts through with his soft yet unwavering croon. His calm command of vocal melody brushed with poised intention on top of this rolling, vivacious soundscape of guitar permeations is reminiscent of Jim O’Rourke’s sprawling Eureka, yet whereas that album’s chief triumph is its moments of folk-pop rupture, Skullsplitter is remarkable in how it sustains a sweet balance between naturally clashing tones. “Spring Has Been A Long Time Coming” is illustrative of Chenaux’s scope on Skullsplitter, venturing sporadically through abstractly rendered, Bill Orcutt-imagined territory, perpetually reigning it all in with Kurt Weisman’s refreshing resolve yet never sacrificing Chenaux’s idiosyncratic performance. On eight-minute slow-burner and album centerpiece “Poor Time,” Chenaux further cements these sloshing elements that he’s been irritating for this entire record by strategically metering his sound output, resulting in a piece that moves much more like an Avalanches song than a Funkadelic one. It is both evident and unique then that Chenaux’s signature “fried guitar” stylings on Skullsplitter work much more like a lighter on gimp thread than a lighter on twine; whereas Guitar & Voice was prominently a deconstruction of traditional form into textures, Skullsplitter is a unification of divergent strands that Chenaux has found structural commonalities between. Although it is exploratory in terms of space and texture, Skullsplitter is anything but incidental; it unfolds like an epic poem, in all its boundary-dissolving creativity and intentional patterning.
Examining Skullsplitter through this lens of lyrical and sonic poetics exposes a motif that resonates throughout: “time” and how we keep and remember its passing. Strictly semiotically speaking, three songs contain “time,” and two of them also contain names of seasons, which are naturally yet semi-arbitrarily constructed ways of keeping and remembering time. Furthermore, “Skullsplitter” also mentions summer, spring, and winter as benchmarks throughout a year of “getting through.” Sonically, Chenaux transgresses classical form through extensive pitch-bending, distortion, feedback loops, and unusual mic’ing, though his aim here is not fundamentally subversion or deconstruction; Chenaux is simply translating literary imagery of time and memory through his unorthodox and extramusical performance in a way that both preserves his poetic voice and signals that Skullsplitter transcends expressive medium.
It is only a small letdown, then, that in all its gorgeous unity, Skullsplitter’s most mind-bending moments often come across as weird-shaped dots in what is otherwise a smooth, pointillistic masterpiece. As a poem, Skullsplitter is profoundly affective, unbridledly resonant, effortlessly fluid, and distinctly original, even as its stanzas are often filled with thorny consonance and nauseating assonance. Because its compositional qualities are not isolated here, however, I am left with two unanswerable questions that structure my listening more than they should: Would Skullsplitter make a more dramatic impact if its experimentation were highlighted more? Would Skullsplitter even work as a soundscape if Chenaux embraced convention? This tension I am left with, though possibly an extension of Skullsplitter’s affectations, remains both a barrier as well as a way in. If/when you can shake off such concerns, however, Skullsplitter is simply a breathtaking feat of balladry and engineering.