If you’ve ever seen Wilco live you’ve noticed the tall guy in nice button-down dress shirts playing the guitar stage left. That’s Nels Cline and he shreds in equal parts beauty and chaos. He’s able to make his guitar sound like the morning dew under a sky blue sky or the train skidding off its tracks below.
Cline officially joined Wilco in 2007 on Sky Blue Sky. In every album since, he’s changed the dynamic of the band. Cline adds the perfect accent to Jeff Tweedy’s songs and gives Wilco that spontaneous edge (along with percussionist Glenn Kotche) that keeps them from being Mumford and Sons or some other folky yawnsman.
In addition to Wilco, who’s newest record, Schmilco, came out this month, Cline has played on billions of records and also records under Nels Cline Trio and The Nels Cline Singers. His last solo record was Dirty Baby in 2010, but in the time since he’s appeared on seventeen albums.
Nels is a busy man and he’s got ideas that can’t be contained in one group. On Lovers, his new double-disc solo album on the Blue Note label, he pulls back the curtain on his musical mind. He leads a flock of musicians to conjure the songs in his head with help from arranger Michael Leonhart. There is no limit to the tools needed to accomplish this. On Lovers you’ll hear electric and acoustic guitars, trumpet, flugelhorn, cymbalon, contrabass, percussion, trombone, bassoon, vibraphone, marimba, harp, violin, viola, cello and others that would make this sentence too long.
The result is cinematic with many arcs. It could be the soundtrack to the silent film adaptation of your life. Some of the song titles even read like scenes headers for a film: “Hairpin & Hatbox,” “The Bed We Made,” “The Night Porter/Max, Mon Amou,” “The Search For Cat.”
Lovers stretches into two records like a long day stretches into the night. The first disc opens with “Introduction/Diaphanous” a sedated jazz number with hi-hats lazily spinning against each other and Cline strumming like the morning wind. Ideal for deep morning coffee reflections.
“Glad to be Unhappy” comes next and sounds like the entrance music for a sneaky villain. Cline employs a full orchestra with French horns rising and falling. Disc One is the more calming of the two, but they pretty much go hand-in-hand. Cline’s muted guitar creates an opium buzz on “Cry, Want” while the cymbals move like sand in a breeze.
“Lady Gabor” drops into deep space, an orchestral spiral, with only the faintest glimmer of a bassline to keep you steady. If you listen hard enough you can see Sun Ra’s ghost levitate out of the frame.
Disc Two stretches out even more. With the snare-head tilted off, “Snare, Girl” begins a six-plus-minute, slow-rocking lull. A steady droning drum beat caked in fuzz keeps pace with Cline’s guitar and eventually turns into alarm. When the induced grip lets up, you fall into “So Hard It Hurts/Touching.” A room full of instruments warms up tapping without direction then dissolves into unraveling notes of feedback. Right as you’re about to crack you’re let out into an open field of oboes and clarinets. This would be the scene when you fall down the stairs drunk, bang your head and wake up four hours later drenched in confusion.
“The Search for Cat” holds all the despair and helplessness of its title’s scene. Disc Two closes out with “The Bond,” a beautiful piece of classical guitar noodling and symphonic interlacings.
Cline’s work on the guitar is some of the greatest put to record. He manages to find that sweet sixteen spot of being technically advanced with his playing, but also utterly incoherent and jarringly experimental. He could play with any group past, present, future, and fit right in. Lovers is Cline let loose on his musical playground.