Nonconnah, "Don't Go Down To Lonesome Holler"
In general, releasing a three-hour album is a highly dubious endeavor, as such an extreme length usually turns even very good music into an endurance test and virtually guarantees that few people will ever listen to the entire opus more than once. When "Memphis dronegaze cult" Nonconnah do it, however, it feels like an absolute godsend. Part of that is because the husband/wife duo of Zachary and Denny Wilkerson Corsa lead what is possibly the most consistently fascinating and wonderful shoegaze/drone project around, but there is an equally important second part as well: the Corsas seem to be constantly collaborating with a host of talented guests. Unsurprisingly, that generates an ungodly amount of material and each major new Nonconnah album feels like a mere tantalizing glimpse into the innumerable killer jams and recording sessions that led up to the release. When I say that Don't Go Down to Lonesome Holler could have probably been an equally brilliant six- or nine-hour album, it is not hyperbole: there are over 50 credited performers involved in this album including folks from heavy hitters like Archers of Loaf, Swans, and No Age (as well as more than 60 instruments ranging from singing saws to cats). My guess is that the only limiting factor was how much time the Corsas could spend culling and editing their mountain of killer material without starting to lose their goddamn minds. This album is an absolute revelation ("Nonconnah's most comprehensive vision yet for the American halfpocalypse," according to the label).
Given Nonconnah's unusual compositional techniques (an endlessly shapeshifting series of themes that blur and bleed into each other), the extended song durations (nothing clocks in under 20 minutes), and the fact that this album is the culmination of six years of recordings made in many locations (silos, graveyards, overpasses, etc.) involving several dozen participants, any attempt to concisely describe a single piece is absolutely hopeless. The overall effect, however, feels somewhat akin to being adrift on a sea of shoegaze-y guitar noise in a boat with no oars so I am completely at the mercy of wherever the waves decide to take me. Sometimes the guitar sounds are sun-dappled and beautiful, sometimes they are quivering and hallucinatory, and other times they are roaring and gnarled. Other times, however, the shimmering shoegaze tides roll back out to sea and leave me somewhere else enchanted and dreamlike. Occasionally, I catch myself wishing that a particular theme stuck around longer or had been expanded into a stand-alone piece, but those thoughts tend to immediately dissipate when said passage bleeds into something else that is every bit as gorgeous.
Aside from Zachary/Magpie's invariably beautiful and inventively warped guitar playing, there are extended nods to tape music, classic midwestern emo, numbers stations, spaced-out psychedelia, spoken word and everything in between (including a fireworks display) and it all fits together perfectly into an immersive and truly mind-expanding tour de force. But it is also more than that as well, as the spoken word/sample-based passages give the whole an oft-fascinating narrative arc that feels like an impressionistic swirl of the jumbled thoughts of a crumbling, confused, and possibly doomed empire: thoughtful monologues about capitalism and the nature of consciousness collide with institutional instructions on eluding active shooters and an impassioned preacher ranting about the end times. If these truly are the end times, at least we got an absolutely stunning album out of it as a consolation prize. I realize it is only July right now, but I feel quite confident in declaring this to be my favorite album of the year, as trying to imagine anything more ambitious, zeitgeist-capturing, and visionary album being released between now and December makes my synapses fizzle and smoke.