Given that Neurosis frontman Scott Kelly recently released the covers album Songs of Townes Van Zandt and has issued two other sparse, introspective and largely acoustic solo records since 2001, it’s not surprising that his latest project, Scott Kelly and the Road Home, is a dark, personal vision of hard living, lost love and the vague hope for redemption inspired by Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and latter-day Leonard Cohen.
What is surprising is how effectively Kelly attains maximal impact with minimal design. The songs on The Forgiven Ghost in Me are almost completely devoid of percussion. They’re repetitive, but they don’t drag, and the playing is simple and unpretentious, welcoming the listener into a world both chilling and filled with wonder.
Kelly clearly believes in the glory of nature and creates colorful imagery of the sun, clouds, sea, rain, light, fire and flowers. But he has trouble seeing past the blackness of mortality. “The blade of the reaper suspend in the eye in the reverence/ all dues in the crossing feed the soul drowning in the breech,” he rasps in “Within in Blood.”
Accompanied by Neurosis keyboardist Noah Landis and ex-Sorrow Town Riders frontman Greg Dale, The Forgiven Ghost in Me flows with grim 3 a.m. folk songs that alternate slow, heavy-hearted strums with picked, ringing notes, and feature an undercurrent of spare, droning organ, brooding bowed bass and haunting slide guitar. It’s a dusky, reflective experience filled with space, and Kelly accompanies the melancholy tones with raw, naked sentiment.
“Death brings the rain to the river and I walk from the shore waiting/ The stones in the river bring hell to the heartâ€¦/ All truth is denied, we will fall in the sun,” he croons on “We Let the Hell Come.” The last two minutes of the song provide some of the most energetic moments on the album; the strumming doubles in speed and becomes more complex, and a second guitar offers welcome melodic counterpoint.
But it’s the final track, “The Field That Surrounds Me” that most closely resembles Kelly’s more rock-oriented efforts. Accompanied by Neurosis drummer Jason Roeder, A Storm of Light frontman Josh Graham and a saxophone player, the song is a climactic contrast of acoustic and electric elements, and achieves a transcendent vibe somewhat redolent of Pink Floyd.
Even at their gloomiest, Scott Kelly and the Road Home have the gift to uplift. In the end, Kelly may still question the meaning of it all, but the power of his music remains undeniable.