The time that it takes an artist to become restless and chameleonic is becoming shorter and shorter these days. It’s almost expected of our modern musicians to be able to jump ably between styles and moods, sometimes within the course of a single LP. All the better to pique the curiosity of us equally overburdened music scribes. (“She stopped using synthesizers and is now only writing songs on Autoharp? This I gotta hear.”)
Irish guitarist/songwriter Cian Nugent certainly takes this idea to heart. He’s currently a member of three vastly different bands (pop/punkers The Number Ones, the improv psych trio Desert Heat, and folk-pop group Cryboys), releases music under his own name, and fronts his own ensemble The Cosmos, with which he dabbles in everything from hazy late night balladry to fiddle-enhanced NEU! homages.
It is with The Cosmos that Nugent recorded much of his latest album Night Fiction, even though his is the only name on the front cover. That’s not a dismissive move, either. Instead, it’s to emphasize the current shade that he’s taken on: the role of vocalist. For the first time, Nugent is singing on one of his records.
The transition is a fairly comfortable one for him, too. His voice isn’t the most dynamic of instruments as he sticks to a low key timbre painted around the edges with the hint of an Irish brogue. But as with his U.K. brethren like David Gedge of The Wedding Present or New Order’s Bernard Sumner, Nugent knows how to fit his singing to the song. A more upbeat number like the listing and spirited “First Run” requires him to push a little more, adding a healthy coat of reverb for effect. It doesn’t matter that his voice cracks at times or he plays a little loose with pitch. The enthusiasm is there. Elsewhere, on the slow dance that is “Shadows” and the slightly swinging “Lost Your Way,” Nugent rests easy, knowing that his nimble guitar playing and the strength of his band will carry him over the finish line.
Where his singing works best is on “Nightlife,” a song which only uses Nugent’s voice and languid electric guitar playing. He feels most at ease in this guise, matching his lyrical look at the many evenings he remains awake into the wee small hours. If you’ve ever been awake at 3 a.m. with nothing but your thoughts, you’ll recognize the strange chill at the core of this song.
Nugent plays it a little safe on Night Fiction, too. There’s a sweet John Fahey-esque acoustic instrumental tucked away like a quickly jotted off love note tucked into your partner’s coat pocket. And the whole thing closes with a long full-band tune that spends 11 minutes building from jangling guitar expanses to something closer to noise rock. Similar in spirit to the massive “Houses of Parliament” recorded by the band on Born To The Caul, but with the addition of some agonized vocalizing by Nugent. Both are fine, but might not fit the full album.
Then again, Night Fiction does feel like a fully realized reflection of its creator’s mercurial disposition. Why wouldn’t it swing from one point on the musical map to another if that is precisely what Nugent apparently does from day to day, moment to moment? It coheres better than it would if it were made by another artist yet could have still used a little more singular focus to complete the transaction.
Robert Ham is a Portland-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can find more of his writing “here”:http://robert-ham.squarespace.com.