This is what I think about Neil Halstead: He's kind of the soundtrack to Generation X. Now, I know — "Gen X" used to sound like a thing, back before the bulk of its population hit its 40s. But if you look at the art from some of Gen X's most recognizable voices — Spike Jonze, Sofia Coppola, David Foster Wallace, Kurt Cobain — there are themes and threads that run through. Pop culture and the shunning of pop culture, sadness and the beauty in sadness, loneliness in a crowd, white space, a shrug.
Which is not to say that Halstead's music contains, within, a shrug. And as a songwriter, he's brilliantly emotive without being cloying. He eschews cliches, his stories are not quite linear, and yet they're relatable. These are songs of landscapes and seascapes, of lavender dawns and letters unwritten and cups of tea gone cold. Of perfect, golden afternoons, and daydreams, and a sort of continual sigh that might be a swoon. Or it might not. It might just be a really good stretch, like a downward dog, or the kind of stretch you stretch when you wake up in a sun dappled room on Sunday morning.
I first encountered Halstead's music a decade ago when he was touring the US in support of his solo debut, Sleeping on Roads, and played Vincent's Ear. (Those tour dates are still arrived here.) Sleeping is such a perfect amalgamation of chill, post-folk singer-songwriter and heartfelt shoe gaze — a breakup album, but so intricately, meticulously crafted that every drop of anger and pain was leached from each track until all that was left was a canvas of pale sky and endless ocean. Just space, and a shimmer of hope adrift far out on the horizon, and Halstead's warm whisper of a voice, and his slow-rhythmic guitar style.
Oh! Might Engine came out in '08 (this is also a Gen X thing — to not be prolific so much as to put out a small amount of very thoughtful, strong work). That album is 13 tracks about change and loss, maybe, and finding a place in the vastness of the universe. It's all very introspective and poetically brilliant. And pretty, in its hushed tones and chugging percussion. Again, the sigh-swoon-stretch. With more beat, fewer dried tears.
And now, Halstead has finally (finally!) released this third solo album, Palindrome Hunches. It dropped just two weeks ago. It's happier (cautiously, carefully so). With more piano. Halstead's voice here seems to have grown deeper, richer. More burnished and less aching. "Full Moon Rising" is a standout track — wistful and dusky with stirring strings parts (violin, double bass) and delicate harmonies. And the line, "If you got a plan, I got a reason." There isn't a misstep on the album. These are songs for firelight, for chilly evenings, for flannel, for yellowed photo albums, for bourbon and still-warm pie. If any musician can write songs that sound both wistful and pie-cozy, Halstead can.
Halstead is on the Brushfire label, which is connected to Music Allies here in Asheville. So, lucky us, Music Allies (along with Harvest Records) is hosting an evening with Halstead at The Lab on Saturday, Sept. 29. A limited number of tickets are available to the public. Buy them at harvest or here. $12, 9 p.m. show time.