ong-time readers of this space will be familiar with Carlisle, Pennsylvania noir country artist Daughn Gibson. Two years ago, Gibson was on the verge of breaking through with Me Moan, his second full-length and first for the Sub Pop label, a Seattle staple. The record went over well and established him as a first-rate balladeer for those who like listening to Merle Haggard and reading Cormac McCarthy.
For his third act, Gibson had tried something a little different. Lyrically, the slow-burning vignettes of songs past remain. What’s changed on Carnation (Sub Pop) is the production. On his 2012 debut All Hell, Gibson’s voice came ahead of the instrumentation; with Me Moan, for an extra oomph, he brought in live drums and guitars played by members of Baroness and Brokeback. Though the studio band took many shapes, the music in the two albums wasn’t radically different.
Carnation is far more layered. Its delivery is richer. Whereas Gibson once used musical restraint to push his stories forward, here the tales tend to blend with the music. Handling production and recording this time are Gibson and Randall Dunn, a man familiar with massive sounds (listed on his CV include heavy, expansive acts like Earth, Sunn 0))) and Tim Hecker). Composer Eyvind Kang (used by Blonde Redhead, Animal Collective, The Decemberists, and others) manages the string arrangements. With eight others listed as contributors, there’s no shortage of personnel.
It’s an immersive listen, different from past albums. Though the vocal sample and slide guitar of opener “Bled to Death” feels familiar, the ambient effects in “Heaven You Better Come In” show off his new studio prowess. Lead single “Shatter You Through” feels like a 1980s New Romantic soundtrack in the vein of Spandau Ballet. “Shine of the Night” indulges indie’s recent penchant for gratuitous sax solos. There’s a lot of synthesizer in these songs, making them sound less like cut-up country and more like an amalgam of late-1970s country and mid-80s new wave schlock.
Whatever its faults, the one thing that makes Carnation so irresistibly singular is Daughn Gibson himself. Though this music is further removed from his origins, the man’s voice and storytelling remain as crucial as ever. There’s a sensuality here that lingers longer than on past releases, even when he’s singing about an angry drunk (“It Wants Everything”) or a recently freed, sexually frustrated mental health patient (“Daddy I Cut My Hair”).
Song construction and stories — the beating heart of what makes Daughn Gibson great — are ever-present. They just happen to be coated in more gloss, and gloss isn’t necessarily a good thing. As in Me Moan, the hurdle is finding the music needed to start the story. With more frills in the production, and richness aside, Gibson unfortunately makes that hurdle just a little bit harder for fans to jump.