For those who’ve heard Scott Tuma’s first two solo albums, the opening seconds of Not For Nobody hold a few surprises: the fact that the album features Tuma actually singing for the first time in his solo career is surprise enough, but also is the realization that the vocals are pitched up and he sounds like a damn munchkin, and this is so strange. Usually this sort of tape trick is good for giggles and “Oh hey, weird” responses, but the biggest shocker in the first 15 seconds here is that, after the initial jolt — when the lyrics are attended to, when the glints of guitar and reverbed sounds of a car starting are assessed, when we all settle down — his voice is incredibly unsettling and saddening. And ‘unsettling’ is far from a complaint.
The palette of sounds here (past that voice) is the same as it’s been on Tuma’s last two solo outings, Hard Again and The River 1 2 3 4. While both are outstanding albums situated between folk, country, and ambient, the latter remains listened to nearly weekly at my house, five years after its release. On Not For Nobody, Tuma moves past laying down reminiscence in 10-minute chunks and sticks mostly to structureless pieces of guitar, organ, harmonium, banjo, and harmonica. Ideas are around for as long as they stay interesting and fade away at all the right times. The treated voice only bookends the album, and the time between is spent no different than on his previous albums. There is no structure past those caps; everything fades in and out, though it all certainly crests with “Rakes”; being one of the more precisely played songs, it grabs attention before it begins to drone loudly with fiddles in its second half.
And as if his solo albums weren't enough to live up to, Tuma’s time in Souled American, a late-’80s/early-’90s Chicago band, had me expecting only greatness. That band started with fairly straight-ahead country-rock before spiraling down to pure, languishing, nebulous heartbreak over the course of six albums. More than a decade later, their last two albums, Frozen and Notes Campfire, remain two of the slowest, most depressing albums ever recorded, among the few albums singular enough to be seemingly divorced from a time period. Meanwhile, Not For Nobody (and the other solo albums) takes the same trajectory Souled American did after the release of Sonny, to very different effect. Whereas after that album the band isolated the down-tempo ambiguity they explored during their middle period, Tuma retraces his steps back to 1992 and isolates the gorgeousness and nostalgia.
Through all the doubled off-kilter guitars and wheezing drones, I couldn't help but wonder why these instruments, clearly the same ones Tuma has used before, sound different. On this album, they sound fragile and slightly off. As if that voice weren’t enough of a tip-off, the birds, voices, and screeching fiddles of the dissonant “Loversrock1” give it away: Tuma plays with the tape speed all over the album. He shifts the timbre of the instruments to sound alien, but it’s no less evocative of the nostalgia of his previous albums. Much like how I wonder whether Frozen and Notes Campfire would still sound like country music if sped up, I wonder what Not For Nobody would sound like if played at its ‘true’ speed. But who cares, I guess. This isn’t an album to do anything with but lie on your bed and get a little teary-eyed.