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.