American singer-songwriter Daughn Gibson, one-time drummer for Pennsylvanian stoner band Pearls And Brass, is already two albums into a three-year-old solo career; two albums, it must be said, that garnered fulsome praise and earnest appreciation in equal measure; two albums that have fueled expectancy for Carnation, his second release on Seattle’s iconic Sub Pop label. Yet this third effort appears to be something of a sidestep; a deft swerve away from plaid-clad, alt-country trappings towards an altogether more cinematic sound.
Opener Bled To Death’s echoing sample, piano and slide guitar adopt ambiance from the offset, and before long there’s the inevitable moment of revelation for Gibson newcomers: his baritone vocal is practically indistinguishable from that of The National‘s Matt Berninger, all the way from his broad, deep register down to the most subtle of inflections. It’s surely unerring for fans of the Cincinnati heavyweights, and perhaps something of a challenge for Daughn himself: here he is with this beautiful gift that brings with it dizzying comparisons to one of the most critically acclaimed acts of the decade. How to live up to that?
In fairness, Heaven You Better Come In, with its Lucky Pierre-style strings, sampled groans and popcorn synth, is more sensual than anything you’d expect Berninger and co to create, but it doesn’t last: follow-up track Shatter You Through is National through and through, from its restless keys and tentative guitar riff to its stabbing string flourishes and harmonious chorus.
Nevertheless, Carnation has its more idiosyncratic moments, especially during For Every Bite’s pop-like passage – complete with syncopated bass, curious vocal effects and conventionally bluesy climaxes – while Daddy I Cut My Hair’s near-acappella intro, movie score-like orchestrals and minor key music box melodies provide a suitably brooding background for Gibson’s contemplations about mental health. If it doesn’t sound like a laugh riot, it’s because it’s not – especially when A Rope Ain’t Enough follows suit, a slow-burner that burns so slowly it almost snuffs itself out despite the return of the spooky slide guitar from Bled To Death.
By this point one has the indelible impression that Carnation is a mood album; a bleak, cathartic, emotionally-dense LP on which major keys are rare and production is always full-on. Admittedly, that impression is challenged by album highlight I Let Him Deal, a moody instrumental that grows into a foot-stomping chorus at odds with most other tracks, its dynamism leading the way to Shine Of The Night, which sounds like it could be an X&Y-era Coldplay track with the vocals dropped an octave or five. There’s even a sax solo.
But this comparative abandon is soon abandoned, and despite Runaway And The Pyro’s muted acoustic strumming and jazz-like piano chords (it’s a bit Perry Blake-ish), the album resumes its dark ruminations with the closing pairing of It Wants Everything and Back With The Family. The former’s stop-start musing and multi-layered climaxes see Gibson leap through the same hoops as before; the latter has the curious effect of being both leftfield and a cop out, its strange, meditative constitution deemed suitable for album-closing duties only. A fitting sign off, perhaps, for a frustrating album whose unremitting melancholy frequently feels like an endurance test.