The idea of putting The Forgiven Ghost in Me, the new mostly-solo outing from Scott Kelly, in any kind of proper context is ludicrous. It’s like trying to cover a mountain with a tarp. For the better part of 30 years, Kelly has stood alongside fellow guitarist/vocalist Steve Von Till at the fore of Neurosis’ explorations and so has become one of the most influential figures of his generation in underground heavy. In 2001, Kelly released his first solo album, Spirit Bound Flesh, on which he began to incorporate the elements of country and dark Americana and also to refine his gravely, exhausted vocal approach that, while still closely related to his contributions to Neurosis, was on songs like “The Passage” more melodic and given an entirely new perspective. Joining forces with Neurosis keyboardist Noah Landis and others in Blood and Time, Kelly helmed the songwriting for 2004’s At the Foot of the Garden (Blood and Time would also release a Latitudes session in 2007 with a lineup that included Kelly, Landis and A Storm of Light’s Josh Graham and Vinnie Signorelli), and the track “Remember Me” from that album also showed up on his next solo outing, 2008’s The Wake. In the time since Spirit Bound Flesh, in addition to the Blood and Time outings, Kelly had released four albums with Neurosis – 2001’s A Sun that Never Sets arrived almost concurrently, 2003’s collaboration with Jarboe, 2004’s The Eye of Every Storm and 2007’s Given to the Rising – as well as begun the preliminaries for what would result in the 2009 self-titled debut from the supergroup Shrinebuilder, in which Kelly is joined by luminaries Al Cisneros (Sleep), Scott “Wino” Weinrich (Saint Vitus, The Obsessed, etc.), and Dale Crover (the Melvins). It wasn’t necessarily much of a surprise that The Wake found Kelly more developed and clearer-headed about what he wanted his solo aesthetic to be – he’d certainly had time to think about it doing everything else.
But still, The Wake was surprisingly cohesive. One can get a sense of where Kelly was headed with it listening in hindsight to Blood and Time’s Latitudes session, on which both Townes van Zandt and Roky Erickson were covered, but still, for many, it was blindsiding, and in no small part I mark it as a beginning touchstone of a new wave of “acoustic heavy” that in the last several months alone has found the likes of Mike Scheidt of YOB and Nate Hall of U.S. Christmas releasing similarly-minded solo outings, a clear thread between them being an influence from Kelly’s work on The Wake. In 2011, Kelly toured with Wino (then supporting his acoustic solo debut) and released a split single and earlier 2012 brought the Songs of Townes van Zandt three-way tribute between Kelly, Wino and Von Till, so as The Forgiven Ghost in Me arrives via Neurot with Kelly performing once again alongside Neurosis’ Landis, as well as Greg Dale under the moniker Scott Kelly and the Road Home, the album has no small task ahead of it in drawing together the Americana and drearily ambient styles in Kelly’s past work. This is unquestionably the album’s greatest success, and that the eight songs/41 minutes are executed with no sacrifice of emotional pull or songwriting acumen only makes the record more impressive. As in Blood and Time, Kelly has once again a fitting partner in Landis (who also recorded The Forgiven Ghost in Me) and throughout these songs, Scott Kelly and the Road Home manage to vary atmospherics while never losing a cohesive mood. The vocals play a large role in establishing the overall scope (Josh Graham does a guest spot late into the record on “The Field that Surrounds Me,” as does Neurosis/Sleep drummer Jason Roeder), but if the opening duo of “A Spirit Redeemed to the Sun” and “The Forgiven Ghost in Me” – the construction of their titles being not the only similarity between them – establish anything, it’s that it’s the songs themselves that are the focus of the album, and nothing else.
Even before it kicks in, one can already hear the organ behind Kelly’s guitar on the open-your-hymnal-and-turn-to-page-three opener “A Spirit Redeemed to the Sun,” on which lyrics like, “I’ve washed the blood from my hands/I’ve forgiven myself in my soul/And I stand before you as nothing and no one/But my hands draw the moths to the flame,” are delivered not with hopped up religious zealotry, but subdued resignation – a sort of restless peace. It’s a folk hymn in the end, with another layer of guitar added, but still a relatively sparse arrangement in terms of what’s actually included – organ, guitar, voice – for how full it sounds. That efficiency is at play across the bulk of The Forgiven Ghost in Me, and when it’s veered from, as on the necessarily busier “The Field that Surrounds Me,” it’s clearly done so on purpose. Most of the songs, though, feature some accompaniment for Kelly at least later in the track, as with the added guitar on “A Spirit Redeemed to the Sun,” and presumably those are the contributions of Dale, though I don’t know that to say for sure. In that regard, however, the title cut, which begins humbly with an intake of breath, joins “The Field that Surrounds Me” as one of the busier inclusions, with early-arriving electric guitar behind the central acoustic figure and – preceded by audible creaks of a chair – a multi-vocal chorus underscored by organ. But for the drums to come later, it’s about as “lively” as The Forgiven Ghost in Me gets, and listening to the rhythm of the acoustic line after that chorus, it’s almost “Stones From the Sky” repurposed. Excellently repurposed, at that, and if Kelly had that in mind when he wrote “The Forgiven Ghost in Me,” he certainly wouldn’t be the first to borrow from that pivotal Neurosis moment. Insistent as that musical hook is by its very nature, here it is patient and in service to a far less bombastic atmosphere – the chorus is more the highlight. “In the Waking Hours” begins with louder guitars and what sounds like tape hum in the background, playing up the organic atmospherics before the electrics come in once again, farther back and played with a slide. The progression isn’t a build, as such, but a definite apex comes later into its 4:28, the last minute or so devoted to a memorable guitar strum.
At just under seven minutes and with an underscoring current of distortion beneath it – almost sounds like a cello and could very well be – “Within it Blood” is a marked change in mood. Electric lead lines and a darkened hum don’t necessarily depart entirely from the Americana, but definitely show another side of it, and structurally the feel is far less traditional. A loop drives the build, vaguely melodic, but malevolent with the electric guitar topping it, and drops out at 5:30 to solo acoustic guitar all the more striking for the emptiness around. Here the silence is as effective as the noise preceding, and if you’re listening on headphones, you can hear breathing to let you know there’s a human being still there. The tape cuts to silence and begins again for the more grounded “We Let the Hell Come.” Dual guitars again play out subtly, but it’s Kelly’s vocals more featured on the start of the album’s second half, and the balladry that comes to its head after three minutes in as he adopts a more gruff voice, just for a line in the “chorus,” before delivering the titular lyric and embarking on a wave of acoustic riffing that is effectively topped by softer overriding electric notes that, after another two minutes, finish the track alone. By now, the course and crux of The Forgiven Ghost in Me is set, and Kelly has well established the atmospheres in which Scott Kelly and the Road Home are working. “The Sun is Dreaming in the Soul,” then is a simpler execution of these musical themes and ideas. It’s the shortest track since the opener, more straightforward in the acoustic/electric guitar work, and, given a clear linear course by the vocals, it reminds of The Wake where a lot of The Forgiven Ghost in Me has more in common ultimately with At the Foot of the Garden. Fitting that it should be contrasted immediately by “The Field that Surrounds Me,” on which Jason Roeder announces the presence of drums with a wash of cymbals that leads to the verse beat, basic but well set to the airier electric guitar line and the acoustic figure. There is a swell, like a horn but not as sharp, that marks the path along the way through the chorus, and atmospherically, “The Field that Surrounds Me” can’t help but be a highlight of The Forgiven Ghost in Me. A synth swirl arrives in the song’s second half that will be familiar to anyone who encountered “Water is Not Enough” from Neurosis’ Given to the Rising, and following another chorus run, all the pieces come together for a sublime instrumental final minute that serves as the apex of The Forgiven Ghost in Me as a whole. It is gorgeous and ends too soon at 6:59.
The expectation, then, is that closer “We Burn through the Night” should be an afterthought, but it winds up being one of the record’s most memorable choruses. Landis offers organ and synth flourishes and Dale complements Kelly’s own guitar, but in its last perhaps most of all, it’s the song that shines on “We Burn through the Night,” the verse and chorus changes no less effective for their immediate familiarity. In its second verse, the arrangement becomes more complex – a different musical noise seems to come with each line, contradicting the earlier simplicity of, say, “In the Waking Hours,” but after the slide is gone, after the synth is gone, after the electrics are gone, The Forgiven Ghost in Me ends with Kelly delivering the title line of “We Burn through the Night” and the tape stopping. There’s no ceremony about it, it just happens. The humility in that is emblematic of the overall effect of these songs. Scott Kelly and the Road Home prove so thoroughly unpretentious that it hardly seems worth mentioning it, and when they’re finished with the record, it’s over. Though it’s clearly a “Scott Kelly album,” for the level of contributions of Landis and Dale (provided I have what those contributions actually are correct), he did right not to make it a purely solo album, as was The Wake or Spirit Bound Flesh. At its heart, The Forgiven Ghost in Me is richer and occupying a different mindset than was either of those two albums, and though Kelly’s songwriting is a consistent factor between them, Scott Kelly and the Road Home, as a unit, is made up of more than the contributions of one person. The Forgiven Ghost in Me does well to move beyond some of the Townes van Zandt-ery of Kelly’s prior solo work – especially that one where, you know, he covered those Townes van Zandt songs – and somehow it makes sense that with the input of the others who appear here, Kelly should wind up with his most human and individualized outing yet. Recommended.Tags: Neurosis, Neurot, Neurot Recordings, Scott Kelly, Scott Kelly and the Road Home, Scott Kelly Neurot, Scott Kelly The Forgiven Ghost in Me, The Forgiven Ghost in Me