After the false step of his turn towards Zen (in his previous work, “Year in the Kingdom”, there were little birds and harps everywhere, and things didn’t quite seem to gel: when you are a lone ranger, your thing is going out to the well to get water, as he confesses in the stupendous “One Task”, not picking flowers), J. Tillman shut himself up again in his room, along with no one less than Steve Albini (in charge of production in this case), pulled his cowboy hat down on his head, and made an album as hard as the asphalt that takes you to the Mojave Desert. Yes, “Singing Ax” is a cobra of an album: first it hypnotises you (using an acoustic guitar, there is nothing electric, everything you hear is guitar, even the beat box, handled by Tillman himself— who plays the drum, by the way, for Fleet Foxes) and later it bites you, a bite of self-pity and howling (pay attention to the eighth cut on the album, “Mere Ornaments”, because it’s one of the best examples). This album is far better than the last (and second-to-last) production from the elder Tillman, the aforementioned “Year in the Kingdom” and, going even further, “Vacilando Territory Blues”, both of which came out last year.
Because “Singing Ax” is, besides the Seattle musician’s seventh work, his firmest bet since he debuted, round about 2006 (in Fargo), with the fabulous “Minor Works”, a solid alt-country exercise that dug up the ground where his admired Nick Drake lies, with singles like “Jesse’s not a Sleeper”, which still figure in the height of his battered work (his stories are weighed down by an infinite sadness). On this occasion, Tillman, with the help of Albini, who recently seems willing to serve up wounded hearts on a platter (first Nina Nastasia, and then good old Josh), throws eleven songs that seem more like stories into the ring. The production is precise (beautiful, in the case of “Diamondback”, arid, in that of “Our Beloved Tyrant” and dirty, on “Three Sisters”) and it rides along with the story, with Tillman more of a preacher than ever (he even confesses, in the aforementioned “One Task”). There are slightly luminous, playful moments ( “Tillman’s Rag”) and poisoned sunsets ( “Singing Ax,”, his most Jason Molina cut, from the period of Songs: Ohia, of course).
Definitively, Josh seems to have finally found his way. This isn’t his best album (his unbeatable “Minor Works” remains the peak), but Albini’s production (at times, pure mist: “Madness on the Mountain”) has cleared up any doubts about his talent (all of them arising from his irregular offerings last year). Although he laments that love doesn’t last forever (in the fantastic “Love No Less Worthy”, pure Damien Jurado—in fact the album is a sort of “Where Shall You Take Me?,” one of the most intimate and well-produced of his friend Jurado), at least he can squeeze a song out of it. Check out the hurricane of the final cut, by the way, “A Seat at the Table”, pure noir country. Laura Fernández