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Reconciling the Gritty with the Exotic – Duke Garwood’s “Heavy Love”

Duke Garwood
Heavy Love
Heavenly Recordings / PIAS

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I’m off on just my first wander through Heavy Love and it happens on the second track. The chills hit. Perhaps it’s appropriate it’s the title track, perhaps that’s immaterial (the underlying, overarching – yes, both – zen buzz of the record would suggest the latter), but something in the way it arrives with a profound exhalation – hints of a distant kettle drum, a night-swallowing bass – and how that’s followed by the spindly desert guitar and the singer’s breathy incantations has you seeing your own ghostly vapors escaping from your mouth in the moonlight as if you’re at a critical lonely juncture of life, one that had to be reached in order to be here on the precipice of mystery and discovery. Yeah, that’s a lot to lay at the feet of just a few measures but that’s okay, Heavy Love can handle it.

Epiphanies spring from the ephemeral woodwork here, the record an audio equivalent of going on a walkabout. Garwood, standing at the head of a path that has led from “real bumfuck Kent” in the UK through Thailand dives, the Paris cold, a squat in Brixton Hill, the sandy vast of Morocco, the lost jungles of Cuba, and, umm, Josh Homme’s LA, calls what he does a ‘mad kind of blues’ and its deep spiritual soundings underline both that wildly nomadic sojourn – the seemingly errant turned true – and the kindred liaisons that have dotted it, from Mark Lanegan (with whom he made Black Pudding in 2013), the Master Musicians of Jajouka and QOTSA conspirator Alain Johannes. Out here in the knockabout world many people dream of living the unmoored life of an artist-drifter then catalyzing it into a masterful opus that pulls together the many threads, reconciling the gritty with the exotic, the desperate with the mystic. Few ever make it past their porch, whether literally or figuratively. Duke Garwood, on his fifth album, has managed it, with both a shrug of fatalism’s panache and a deeply-locked belief in the power of his work. The result is 41 minutes of intense American artistry (despite his British heritage), enhanced at times by flavors from the hotter latitudes.

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The summoning of spirits is immediate with the eerie stumbling blues of “Sometimes,” spooking up the air with layers of shape-shifting sonics and a fleeting touch of the otherworldly. Think flash flood arroyos, think guttering candlelight, “we catch fire in the pouring rain.” “Snake Man” comes on with a voodoo pulse, charms clacking, its rattlesnake shake slowed to a menacing crawl, its mojo taken apart and built back up again into a skeletal shuffle, all haunting slither and ritualism, dig the hypnotic taunt of the brujo’s harmonica as it disappears into the wash and takes the singer with it. The murmuring guitar-sustained howl of “Hawaiian Death Squad” emits a translucent glow that’ll cast a cold shadow of recognition across the heart of anyone that’s felt love tear itself away from them. Appropriately the record’s last track, the song shimmers with the sense of a fading horizon, sparsely elegiac and in the grip of an exquisite solitude. A wind blows through as it passes into silence and we’re left standing in the wake of a beautifully ragged farewell that the singerĀ seems to have lived more than once.

Evident everywhere on Heavy Love is the emotional linger of Garwood’s peripatetic life but perhaps most intriguing are those tracks that weave in his adventures’ more exotic destinations, not least his time in North Africa. “Burning Seas,” while ground in mythical metaphor, could just as easily refer to the hot and vast Saharan expanse, draped in spare Tinariwen traces as the guitars reverberate both ringing and mournful, Garwood’s trouble-flecked vocal treading across territory where dread and cynicism give up light to faith and devotion. Slightly less redemptive, “Suppertime in Hell” follows a delicately plucked acoustic line as it drops from a kind of stripped-down Afropop dolorousness to a California campfire blues with heat-rising atmospherics and snaking melodic patterns blending with the smoke, emerging when all’s said and done as one of Heavy Love‘s most powerful – and plainly beautiful – offerings, shrouded in a dry dark pathos that seems to simultaneously comfort and disturb. “Roses,” meanwhile, unfurls like a Desert Session slowed to a funereal pace, as if the players have been at it for three days straight and all that’s left in the tank is an intimate grasp of the unclaimable, drawling with insight and starched-white emotion. Where the dog-eared roadmaps of Garwood’s past most viscerally intersect, however, is on “Disco Lights,” the deserts of northern Niger and the southwestern US laid like transfers one upon the other as an echoed urban blues speaks tongues from the perimeter. With its fugitive Morrison lyric, spare as Raymond Carver, and a fine supporting turn from background vocalist Petra Phillipson, the track achieves sleeper killer status, its fadeout guitar the sound of a scorpion howling and ready to crawl into your dreams at night.

Staking out a claim as much in the haunted updrafts of Daughn Gibson’s experimental americana as in the battered survivor romanticism of Mr Lanegan, Duke Garwood mines veins buried deep in our national psyche, ironic as that might be for someone from the resplendent confines of bumfuck Kent. Mitigating that irony, of course, are those alliances made along the way and the influences absorbed from them, but really one senses that, once he crossed Kent’s city limits and stepped into the slipstream of restlessness and borderless curiosity, the fate of his sound was sealed. So much so, in fact, that Heavy Love feels like a homecoming.