Walt McClements has often been at the center of other people's drama. For more than a decade, he has made a name and a living, as the party responsible for some of the most compelling emotional flourishes on a variety of records and stages. From his hands come the plaintive piano over which Natalie Mering’s voice soars throughout the past few years Weyes Blood tours. Dark Dark Dark fans often swooned over McClements’ sometimes simultaneous accordion and trumpet swells. And from their New Orleanian beginnings, Hurray for the Riff Raff’s alt-country balladeering has often been bolstered by McClements’ multi-instrumental wizardry.
But even among the members of those groups, there has long been shared the lighthearted half-joke: “Walt is fiercely independent.”
Both this independence and its apparently contrary collaborative spirit are at play on Delicate Art, McClement’s latest solo release under the Lonesome Leash moniker. Indeed, the balance of such opposing modes is a delicate art, clearly on display from the record’s earliest moments.
McClements is joined on “Driving,” by indie-folk godmother Mirah. It plays as a duet about solitude, a conceptually tense but soothing tangle of pulsing drum machine and accordion and synth arpeggiations. The song weaves its way like a car through L.A. traffic, in and out of lines like “I can almost see the faces of the people next to me / oh but the light blinds me.” But there is something more than the celebration of solitude here: “I have never felt as much a part of something larger than myself as when I'm on the highway.” Eventually the weaving poetic vehicle hits an open stretch of road and Mirah’s voice joins McClements to sing “we are a river made of light and made of metal / made of skin and bone.” It isn’t quite a celebration of collective spirit that animates this statement, but it’s far from a lament of the solitary.
An apparent tension between solitude and connection is what animates that line and indeed much of the record. But tension is not necessarily strife, and McClements looks repeatedly at that fine and delicate balance between being alone and being in congress. “Ghosts in the Garden” sees McClements laying with his lover, but with shoes muddied from “walking in that park again.” And when day breaks, he says, “I’ll pretend that I got a bit of sleep / It’s easier that way.” The song is not a simple ode to cruising, but it is an ode to the space between cruising and not. His doubtful lover asks him what did he dream, and McClements replies to him “I was naked almost formless and beauty had no context.”
None of this is without the drama that McClements has so often brought to his past collaborations, and which he tirelessly brings to his solo performances. Onstage, McClements often stuns. While he is many highway miles away from his once adopted home of New Orleans, it was there he cut his teeth as a solo performer, diving head-first into drums, trumpet, and accordion, playing them all at once. Onstage and on record, organic textures are reined and metered and meted out, syncopated. Narrative is the driving force but pulsation is the vehicle. And while it would be wrong to say that Delicate Art celebrates dysfunction or conflict, there is an undeniable sense of empowerment in acknowledgment, an exultant aura, in exploring moments of tension, even heartbreak. And it is via a certain flippancy, as though in authoring these decidedly queer love songs, McClements offers a critique, even an invalidation of many of the love song tropes which have come before.
The title track is a songwriter’s song, comfortably comparable to the craftiness of Bill Callahan or of his own predecessors: Cohen, Townes Van Zandt. It is the kind of songwriting that borders on riddling. How far can one take the form? How many verses in this form will support this meaning? McClements, here assisted on vocals by his old bandmate Nona Marie Invie, and accompanied by harpist Mary Lattimore, lists the various delicate arts. Friendship, stories, control are all delicate arts, “even in dreams”. McClements himself seems delicate throughout much of this work. Not fragile, but delicate. Not conflicted, but delicate. Delicate in the sense that balance is delicate, like the balance between a whisper and a howl. And perhaps in the end, the balance between solitude and congress cannot be overstated: “I dreamt I was not in love / with anything in this whole world / I thought I’d feel so free / Turns out freedom is a delicate art / even in dreams.”
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