Cian Nugent Night Fiction

[Woodsist; 2016]

Styles: folk, blues, guitar soli
Others: Steve Gunn, Ryley Walker, Jessica Pratt

It’s not as if Cian Nugent still needs to find his voice. The guitar player started his career as a solo guitarist who could, in a way that seemed effortless, translate thoughts into sound. 2013’s Born With the Caul was his debut as a bandleader, and he guided that band — again with a seeming effortlessness — through hills and canyons of sound, sagely allowing his guitar to take a step back when it needed to, letting the stew to churn on its own. When he called upon his guitar, it spoke well for him, calling up pieces of his interior, sometimes agitated but mostly thoughtful. But there’s that one section of “The Houses of Parliament,” right after he rips into a particularly uneasy solo, grimy and writhing, where he sets the guitar aside and breaks his (vocal) silence. He sings a few impressionistic lines about walking around after dark, watching the blue glow of TV sets through his neighbors’ bedroom windows, before the song builds to its final instrumental climax.

Night Fiction expands on that moment in obvious ways. It’s Nugent’s first collection of songs rather than instrumental pieces, and it’s the first album on which he sings on nearly every track. But the album also finds him taking his skill at speaking through his guitar and condenses it, concentrates it. His rhythm work is crisp and earthen, not so much pushing forward as flowering outward, the picture of a mind focused on growing and filling out. Again, Nugent shows he can let the music flow on its own, as heard in a particularly beautiful section of “Shadows” that tromps along without a solo, just horns, drums, a plinking piano, and Nugent’s rhythm.”Lucy,” a solo guitar piece and the only instrumental here, is also, perhaps ironically, one of the most lucid moments on the record. It’s the sound of Nugent meditating intently, working out details. His solos are even more contained, recalling, as the one on “Things Don’t Change That Fast” does, George Harrison, in the way they settle easily on the sweet notes, singing as much to Nugent himself as to anyone listening.

Nugent’s voice generally doesn’t land on uneasy notes, either. His songs are wistful, contemplating the passage of years without flirting with dissonance or languishing in darkness. On “Nightlife,” he watches the walls of his dark bedroom, focusing on the lights playing on the walls. It’s a song born of solitude; it’s easy to imagine Nugent slumped over his guitar, drawing himself toward inner peace as he contemplates the uncomfortable middle ground between becoming who you want to be and being who you are. “Nightlife” combines Nugent’s best songwriting impulses with lyrics that ground his swirling mind in physical space, with a melody that treads carefully along fugue-like chord structures. The melody barely distinguishes itself from the timbre of his guitar.

That works well within the textures of “Nightlife,” but on songs where the band joins in, it’s less easy for Nugent to fuse himself to his guitar. Songcraft doesn’t always come to him as fluidly as his playing; for instance, you might catch yourself whistling the solo to “First Run” before you can recall the melody. Lines like “Oh twisted light, drifting through the years/ Like an echo to your fears” complement the discerning nature of Nugent’s playing. But others, like “I’d hate to be free/ And I think you would too/ As the object hates the verb,” don’t go down as easy.

But Night Fiction is about finding new ways to speak, and Nugent pursues this ambitiously, utilizing his strengths as an introspective, lyrical guitar player and an increasingly competent bandleader. In a recent interview, Nugent said he thought hard about how he wanted to sing on Night Fiction, not wanting to stifle his Dublin brogue but also not wanting listeners to mistake his words. There’s no mistaking them: He sings with confidence, utterly honest and searching. There’s beauty in that, too.

Links: Cian Nugent - Woodsist

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