Biblical of name and of beard, Israel Nash fits a kind of psychedelic frontiersman template almost too perfectly. The creation myth of this, his fourth album, is full of elemental interventions and manly responses: a home-made studio in a place called Dripping Springs; a cataclysmic flood, just as recording sessions were about to begin; a staunch, all-hands-to-the-pump rescue and repair operation. Nash, though, is adept at making a romance out of a crisis, and so much of Silver Season pitches him as a cosmic soul, toughing it out with nature. These are songs packed with fire and flood and “vim and vigor”, where Samhain bonfires burn beneath Hill Country stars, and where our hero can present himself, with a more or less straight face, as a noble visionary. There’s a poncho for warmth and a child on the way. “I don’t live like the others,” he gently asserts in “A Coat of Many Colors”. “I see twice as many colors.”
A bit daft, perhaps, and there are moments on Silver Season when it all sounds a little like the Fleet Foxes letting off steam at an Iron John summer camp. But such is the potency of Nash’s music, what might read on the page as macho whimsy is transformed, in a whorl of pedal steel, into something altogether more seductive. Nash and his band are based just outside the music city of Austin, Texas, though their outlaw aesthetics are much more aligned to the vintage folk-rock sound of Los Angeles. Languid grooves and high harmonies proliferate. Songs typically clock in at around five minutes, and feel like they could roll on much longer. The ravishing “Willow”, to pluck just one from nine, may have scholars of this stuff trying to work out whether Nash is more indebted to the traditions of Topanga or Laurel Canyon.
My money, for what it’s worth, is on Topanga. It’s hard to hear Nash without thinking of Neil Young, thanks chiefly to the high and quavering register which he favours, and the way his voice sits amidst a tangle of similar tones and russet signifiers. Like Rain Plains, its 2013 predecessor, Silver Season nevertheless posits a path not quite taken by Young: one where Crosby, Stills & Nash backed him on Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, instead of Crazy Horse. They may have been a little more tense and electric than much of Silver Season, but those clips of CSNY jamming “Down By The River” in the Celebration At Big Sur film seem as good an antecedent as any for songs like “The Fire And The Flood”.
“Lavendula”, meanwhile, exemplifies a prevailing atmosphere that also isn’t too far from Gene Clark fantasias like “Silver Raven” and “Strength Of Strings”; a roots-based sound that is layered and manicured to such an opulent point that it becomes a sort of rustic baroque. For all the guyish backstory of piling up sandbags to keep the floodwater away from the equipment, then dredging mud out of the studio – and notwithstanding “Parlour Song”’s allusive indictment of gun crime – Nash is fabulist rather than realist. Earthy matters are a springboard to the transcendent, not an end in themselves.
At the heart of it all is a song called “LA Lately” (it’s also the opening track on our free CD this month), a dazed paean to what might plausibly be seen as his spiritual home. The way Nash talks about it, he and guitarist Joey McClellan (who also figures in the current Midlake lineup) wrote the song in 20 minutes as their van was leaving the city after a show. “We had stayed in Silver Lake for a few days, Hollywood sign in the distance. The whole thing was a moment,” he says, going on to mention a meeting with Jonathan Wilson, whose Gentle Spirit (2011) was maybe the last album to traverse this territory with such style.
Discussing the trip, Nash has a tone bordering on gauche excitement. “LA Lately”, though, transforms that raw thrill into something closer to awed grandeur, where a Mellotron ushers in a rapturous amalgam of steel and harmonies, and the city is stripped away to reveal its volatile geography. “Where did all the hills go, swallowed by the sand?” he wonders, before admitting, “at a glance, the ocean scares me.” It’s the sound of a man being overwhelmed by the majesty and possibilities of his environment, and simultaneously being energised into trying to articulate that vast emotional and physical scope. And it’s the point where the fanciful ambition of Silver Season crystallises into an unambiguously terrific album. Like he sings, “It comes in waves…”