At first blush, Starry Mind seems fairly routine. Here we have eight mid-tempo songs, populated with lightly strummed guitars, contented drumming, and Pat Gubler’s likable, nonintrusive vocals. The first strains of opener “January” conjures up a nonspecific and stereotyped rural American landscape, despite the song being a traditional Irish ballad. Everything is in its right place; everything feels polished and well thought out. Consequently, these songs initially appear suspended in a placid state, at once agreeable and uneventful. Presented with this seeming reluctance to venture into new territory, I found myself initially dismissing the album, Gubler’s fourth as P.G. Six, as being overly familiar and therefore unremarkable.
But behind Gubler’s ostensibly static arrangements is palpable unease. The chord progression of “Days Hang Heavy” is filled with curious harmonic shifts that suggest a lack of certainty; that deceptively pretty acoustic guitar moves deftly yet suddenly, as if searching for something that feels right on a purely instinctual level. The main guitar riff of “Palace” is immediately memorable, making it easy to overlook the dissonance pervading it, a tension that isn’t so much resolved as it is completely abandoned once the calm voices of Gubler and bassist Debby Schwartz enter. This juxtaposition between anxiety and serenity is made all the more jarring by irregular phrase lengths and Gubler’s surreal intonations: “We walk together side by side in the palace of my starry mind.” Meanwhile, the aforementioned “January” takes subject matter familiar to anybody well-versed in contemporary country-rock and rids it of clichés: “Cruel was my false true love that changed his mind for gold/ But cruelest was that winter’s night that pierced my heart with cold.” The imagery is striking, certainly more compelling than Gubler’s sonic environments might initially suggest.
Indeed, music this traditionally pleasant often takes extra time to reveal its nuances — that is, if they exist in the first place. Starry Mind is, for the most part, subtle enough to make up for its surface blandness, but some of its charms take a great deal of digging to find. Take “Talk Me Down,” which precariously walks the line between the sweet and the hokey. Its chorus certainly leaves something to be desired; “Talk me down, talk me down/ Thank the Lord I’ve got you here to talk me down” is neither subtle nor particularly affecting. But then, in the song’s final section, Gubler cries out, over and over, “Sometimes it seems the light was just not meant for me,” a surprising moment of clarity in a song seemingly glazed with honey. The sentiment isn’t enough to rescue the track from its unending staidness, but it’s refreshing nonetheless. Unsurprisingly, the album’s weakest moments are its most banal, occurring when there are no moments of sudden inspiration to liven the proceedings; the jangly “Wrong Side of Yesterday” fails to materialize into anything compelling, while “Letter” is simply too halfhearted to be consequential.
Yet despite the nearly omnipresent feeling of ennui, there’s a haunting beauty to this stuff that manifests itself in Gubler’s subtler touches, as well as in his peculiarly detached demeanor. Mind you, this approach is limiting — Gubler is too reserved a performer for his solo work to reach the soaring heights of, say, Bill Callahan’s Apocalypse. But if Gubler seems perpetually unable to take his voice beyond its comfortably bland range, he’s able to take that shortcoming and make it an expressive gesture. The effect is one of restraint, rather than laziness, and it demands either rapt attention or total disregard. Consequently, Starry Mind is both an effortless listen and a taxing one, blending easily into one’s surroundings while also rewarding intense examination. That may not make for a consistently enjoyable experience, necessarily, but at least it’s a far cry from the jejune, uninteresting one I originally had the record pegged as. Sometimes it feels good to be proven wrong.