Jonathan Wilson: “Gentle Spirit”
Are rock’s canons open or closed? The question is raised by Gentle Spirit, the long-time-coming debut album from studio veteran Jonathan Wilson, an album that evokes, rather uncannily, the fertile folk/rock movement based out of Laurel Canyon, California. According to Wikipedia, the Laurel Canyon movement was in large part a 60’s thing; many rock writers would say it was more of a 1970’s phenomenon. Thing is, Gentle Spirit makes me wonder if the movement ever really came to a close, or if it simply slowed to a trickle.
Gentle Spirit sounds like it could have been made in the same time period, and the same mindset, as any given classic from CSNY, and when I say that I don’t mean to suggest that it is a studious recreation; no, it’s all a bit too lose and shambling for that, with the historical allusions seeming a matter of instinct rather than deliberation. Nor does the music comment on the Laurel Canyon legacy. There is no subversion here, no sense of detachment or perspective that comes from elapsed time.
Instead, Wilson gives a straight-faced (but never self-conscious) set of hippy-ish, mellow jams. The harmonies are deep and rich, the songs perfectly content in their own meandering runtimes and relaxed tempos, even the more rock-and-roll moments feeling leisurely rather than intense. There are guitar freakouts—none more rewarding than the jittery cover of Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Way I Feel,” ironically enough—and some jams that verge on the truly epic. It’s all totally beautiful, and totally stoned; if you have any question about the frame of mind Wilson and his amiable collaborators are in, simply consider that there are songs with titles like “Natural Rhapsody,” “Rolling Universe,” “Canyon in the Rain,” “Valley of the Silver Moon,” and “Magic Everywhere.” Again: All of this is straight-faced and sincere, and presented without pretense or affectation.
At times it’s a little silly, frankly, but it’s too good-natured to be anything other than a pleasant, low-key stretch of words and melody. The title song, which opens the record, is fairly emblematic of everything that follows; it’s a gently-strummed acoustic meditation, its verses mourning unrest in the world and its chorus calling on some anonymous “gentle spirit” to fill our hearts with love. There is something about the universe being a circle, as well, which is just the kind of phrasing you have to get used to here. (Another standout line: “The natural world, she needs our energy.”)
For all the positive energy and mysticism, this music has always been rather narcissistic; that’s the deep, dark, navel-gazing secret that Wilson’s music does nothing to subvert, and it comes to the fore in a song like “Can We Really Party Today.” It verses move at a relatively sprightly pace through a series of images of the natural world. The chorus slows things down to address societal ills—“all that’s going on,” as Wilson phrases it. But it’s not really a protest; more like an apology for the fact that these guys are too stoned and distracted to actually mount a protest.
Your mileage will vary depending on your patience with all the good vibrations, ancient wisdom, and all that; the commitment of Wilson and his collaborators to this music is unflagging, however, and the record is both more difficult and, in a perverse way, more loveable because of its commitment to embracing the Laurel Canyon mysticism in all its glory and excess; many of the songs here are simply very, very long. The whole thing runs close to 80 minutes, and the final song alone takes up a good ten. That’s an awful lot of cosmic noodling around, but the album’s warmth and lack of pretense make the duration of the thing cheerfully indulgent. And the best, often most concise moments click remarkably well: The hushed whisper of “Ballad of the Pines,” the amiable, organ-drenched gait of “Don’t Give Your Heart to a Rambler,” and the spaced-out blues “Woe is Me” all sound, to my ears, like perfectly worthy additions to the storied Laurel canon.