A Season Lost by Nashville-by-way-of-Asheville singer-songwriter Jeff Zentner continues in his folk-noir journey through nightscapes, bird flights, cloud formations and lost love. The album was released just this week, and it’s Zentner’s first solo effort since 2009’s The Dying Days of Summer — read a review here. (He also performs with alt-country band Creech Holler.)
“We have so little time,” Zentner sings over and over on lead track “The Motion of the Earth,” a moody and breathy expanse of strings and poetic musings, almost more of a spoken word piece than a song. Listen to it here:
But the music of Lost does sing. Zentner’s vocals are close to the mic, a dusky baritone that never cracks despite the palpable ache. Here, Rykarda Parasol backing vocals are more fervent accent than harmony.
The title track is the album’s longest. It opens with a combination of harmonium (Buck Curran) and slide guitar that sound raga-esque. The lyrics, spooky and nervy, creep and slither along a landscape of minor keys and sonic experimentation. The tapestry here is part Appalachian ghost story, part post-apocalyptic sandstorm — simultaneously spine-tingling and beguiling.
The next two tracks (“Bleed for You” and “Fire in My Bones”) are polarizing different takes on the love song. “Bleed for You” is simple — two voices and acoustic guitar, all warm tones and close space. The vocal effects lend a rosy glow to the sweet, if lovelorn, sentiment (“When you wake from restless dreams / do you turn and look for me?”). “Fire in My Bones,” on the other hand, flexes electric guitar muscle, reverb, drum kit, cymbals and churning obsession. Here, Zentner’s voice is a low growl submerged in the layered instrumentation. The song smolders and claws at its own walls, piling darkness upon darkness right up to the last crushing notes.
“Leaving” is a standout track, with its melancholy violin (Elin Palmer) and the lilting tempo of a doomed waltz. “I’ve learned about leaving a city / like a lover in the night” Zentner and Josie Little sing together. Though the mood of the song is forlorn, there’s a pure-and-piercing romance to it. “White Horses,” too, conjures dreamy romantic visions. But here, the panoptic soundscapes are those of mist-blurred moors as traversed upon the silver screen. Vocal effects lend a breathless and hazy cast to the song. And, while the vocals speak of sunlight and summer, this song is born of a land where the enveloping fog never clears.
“Devil’s Eyes” is a feverish distillation of Appalachian folk-noir. Menacing low-tones and a chorus of male voices underscore imagery of serpents and raven-haired enchantresses; Matt Bauer’s background vocal echoes, specter-like. But it’s the addition of the Swedish nyckelharpa (Palmer) that elevates this writhing number into stylized nightmare territory.
The thing about Zentner (the musician), for all his mournful steel guitars, rain-soaked metaphors, smoky melodies and shuddering, broken-hearted portraits, is that Zentner (the guy) is actually a quick wit. He’s among the top-five funniest Twitter-users I follow. Just today he remarked (via Twitter), “I’m mistrustful of anyone who makes dark music and (a) is not a funny person or (b) does not appreciate comedy.” Considering that formula, Zentner is completely trustworthy.
But Lost proves, with each of its 11 tracks, that he’s completely trustworthy as a musician, too. There’s not so much as a stumble, let alone a misstep, and Zentner remains true to his vision from start to finish. Final track, “Birds Fly South,” is an opulent anguish. Its melodic pathways wind through sparks of violin and low-shimmering guitars. The story of this song exists just beyond its frame. While Zentner and Palmer sing in a tuneful hush — not harmonizing as much as layering their voices like an embrace — of the migratory paths of birds, the sense is of love’s dying embers. The song fades with the softest reverberation of strings, though it may just as well have culminated in a swoon.
If you’re looking to pump up the jam, this is not your album. Don’t plan your 10-mile jog around these tracks (though, Zentner is a dedicated runner, so it would be interesting to know what’s on his iPod). This is music for reflection, for rainy days and firefly-lit nights. These are songs that flicker and sigh and recall lost affection and the brief fragility of life. In a good way.