Solo albums from instrumentalists are usually about stripping down, exposing the essence of one’s playing, laying bare the production and products of brain, breath, and/or fingers. The first solo recording from jazz/avant/Wilco guitarist Nels Cline achieves that purifying effect despite being anything but minimal. This may be one of the more crowded “solo” recordings in recent memory, in fact, as Cline overdubs himself throughout, augments his acoustic and electric guitars with exotica such as zithers and Indian sruiti boxes, and feeds his sound through effects, processors, and other studio tools. And yet Coward emerges as the most uncanny portrait of Cline’s protean sound to date.
Cline boasts an extensive resume as a free improviser, but Coward benefits from showcasing his composing skills and his restless, undogmatic sonic tastes. He has a way with a plangent melody, as the delicate acoustic balladry of “Prayer Wheel,” “The Divine Homegirl,” and “The Nomad’s Home” show off, but he also has a knack for insistent rock riffs, as attested by the slow-building electric “Thurston County” (the title a card/hat-tipping homage to Sonic Youth guitarist and Cline collaborator Thurston Moore as well as the jurisdiction that contains indie-rock mecca Olympia, Wa.). Not content with discrete experiments, Cline builds the album around two expansive suites, the Fahey-goes-microtonal acoustic elegy “Rod Poole’s Gradual Ascent to Heaven” and “Onan,” a multi-part tongue-in-cheek epic that ties together post-industrial drones, majestic power balladry (“Lord and Lady”), Electric Ladyland side-three bits, robot marches (“Seedcaster”), and urgent faux-Bedouin jams (“The Liberator”). And somehow all this furious stylistic pitching and yawing all sounds like Cline, perhaps because it is, as fully and finally revealed in this definitive and wondrous musical statement.