It’s one thing to label a record the “Album of the Year.” It’s another to label it a masterpiece or a magnum opus. In 2011, Saving Country Music labeled Slackeye Slim’s El Santo Grial, La Pistola Piadosa all three. A sweeping Western epic of a conceptualized album, it told a story in such breadth and detail that it left listeners haunted and transformed, and still to this day remains the ideal selection during a long road trip out West through the desert or mountains to reveal the magic of the wide open spaces, and one of the most creative feats of recorded underground music ever released.
When an album scores such a bullseye as El Santo Grial did, it necessitates rapt attention be paid to any subsequent releases by an artist, even though it almost seems inevitable that the follow ups are not going to attain the same apex set by their distinguished predecessor. Unfortunately you just can’t best perfection.
Like many of the leathered-skinned, sand-blasted, sullen and desperate characters which populate his stories, Slackeye Slim seems more apparition than man, shifting in and out of the material consciousness, showing up when you least expect him, and disappearing for years at a time in between. After the release of El Santo Grial, Slackeye Slim did not go on an extended tour or take a victory lap. He virtually disappeared, eventually moving from the upper Midwest to a ranch in Western Colorado, where he hunkered down amidst the wide landscapes and inspiring vistas, and wrote what eventually became his masterpiece followup Giving My Bones to the Western Lands.
Wanting to instill the recording with the authenticity and inspiration that gave rise to the songs, the initial plan was to record Giving My Bones on location outside in a desert canyon near the ghost town of Dewey, Utah. However this romantic notion ran into some very practical problems from the wind that prevails in this setting, so Slackeye relocated his mobile studio to an old abandoned homestead outside of Mesa, Colorado, with the Grand Mesa looming in the distance. There, Giving My Bones to the Western Lands came into being.
Where El Santo Grial was all about telling an expansive and mostly concrete story through song, Giving My Bones is delightfully ambiguous, ethereal, and sparse in its articulated concepts. The darkness, and the Western feel indicative of what outside ears might find cousin to the soundtrack of The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly that has marked all three of Slackeye Slim’s releases is still here, and not that any thread can’t be heard through various moments of Giving My Bones tying the songs to each other, or even these songs to Slackeye’s other projects, but Slackeye’s approach on this album is to impart of basic truths with some spices and textures, and let the listener decide which path to take the story.
One of the vehicles where this approach finds its greatest potency is in these slow, plodding, long, almost dirge-like songs that build over time similar to a thunder roll lowering from a big sky cloud bank. What might seem like droning, directionless filler at first listen reveals trance-like meditative grooves with wisdom intertwined amongst dark, yet simple and evolving melodies. Songs like “Oh, Montana,” the epic and growing “San Juan Song,” and similar offerings near the end of the track list evidence this potent approach and are worth listening past initial reactions to revel in their inner, eventual genius.
Meanwhile many other songs offer something completely different, though in a manner that keeps Giving My Bones entirely cohesive. “I’m Going Home” played on a strumming banjo is surprisingly light in style, though a troubled narrative lies beneath, and the final track of the album “Juniper Tree” is a waltz-timed, almost children’s-style Rip Van Winkle approach. “Cowboy Song” takes a quick, menacing, pursuant direction in the music. The textures to Slackeye’s songs remain just as important as anything else—cawing birds, chirping crickets, and a collection of percussive instruments always layering extra character to each composition, until they fall silent to enhance a particular song’s vast space.
What makes Giving My Bones to the Western Lands less than perfect is not necessarily the approach, or the ambiguity in the stories, or the writing and arrangement, but just a generally more raw and rough-hewn approach. It’s one thing for a record to feel loose, and another for it to feel wonky in moments, with a latency between parts that reveals the limitations of overdub recording not implemented carefully.
What was so astounding about the epic El Santo Grial was how tedious the approach seemed to make it perfect, not just pulling from what seemed to be an incredible palette of sounds that was much more rich and diverse than this effort, but to make sure they were communicated to the ear with the greatest of care. Giving My Bones doesn’t approach the music with the same goal, and just like all musical comparisons, it’s generally not fair to compare it with a previous or different approach. A more sedated and practical effort may have been taken with this album to allow more imagination to seep in, and in segments this is certainly the result.
Such an endless possibility of creative feats awaits the listener if they decide to venture off the page of professional music and discover the crafters who fit their musical pursuits between other priorities in life. It’s not for the faint of heart, or for those too impatient to search for the hidden meaning or melody in music. Slackeye Slim remains a stalwarts of the dark unknowns who harness the raw inspiration right out of the ground and air, and impart it to hard scrabble clans of informed listeners who’ve learned how to spy that gem in the rough.
1 3/4 of 2 Guns Up.