Steve Von Till has charted an extraordinary musical path over the last several decades, from his main duties as singer and guitarist of the boundary-breaking Neurosis, to the psychedelic music of his Harvestman project and the unique folk songs he’s released under his own name. His latest album, No Wilderness Deep Enough, is like nothing he’s done before; it’s devastatingly beautiful and overwhelming in its scope, reminiscent of the tragic ecstasy of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds‘ recent work as well as the borderless ambient music pioneered by Brian Eno, late composer Jóhann Jóhannsson‘s glacial compositions, and the electronic mutations of Coil. Alongside the album, Von Till just released his first book, Harvestman: 23 Untitled Poems and Collected Lyrics. The book is a collection of new poetry and lyrics from Von Till’s solo career over the past 20 years. It’s a work of rich text that showcases his deeply felt ruminations on the myriad beginnings and endings of life itself.
In many ways these songs are as much a mystery to me as they are to anyone else — maybe more so. My understanding of them is fluid, ever changing, intuitive and abstract. My relationship to them is one of raw gut level emotion and wonder. I don’t know where they come from, but I have a great sense of gratitude for being able to occasionally visit that subconscious reservoir where music and poetry make sense by providing an emotional structure to our experience. I don’t think it is the job of an artist, poet, or musician to explain away the magic. Our job is to make manifest things of that otherworld ruled by the creative spirit, muse, or whatever you want to call it. I am not trying to be evasive, I am simply unable to explain what they mean exactly. That is why they are songs and not prose. For the sake of discussing this album track by track, I will put the album on the turntable now and type my thoughts and comments upon the page in real time, hopefully revealing some aspects and memories of its creation, mentioning important lyrics that stand out to me, or whatever the stream of consciousness brings forth.
Please join me and listen to the record while you are reading this so that my rambling makes some sort of sense. You can stream it here.
“Dreams of Trees”
This is one of those rare times when a working title randomly given to the rough initial sounds sticks and makes it to the final cut. It was called this before a single lyric was written.
I love the sound of mellotron strings, since I first noticed them as a kid on King Crimson and Beatles albums, but Brent Arnold’s beautifully played and recorded cello really brings this piece to life. Something about hearing the rosin grind off a bow is incredibly compelling to me.
Dragged from the ocean and given eyes
Called from the wind as if we were wise
The disembodied voice sound of the wavetable synth is subtle but important to the mood.
Still now you voices, let us rest
Carve the ash like a man possessed
I loved singing into that vintage Neumann U47. It has a rich tone that complements my voice.
Randall Dunn, the engineer/producer did such a great job of expanding upon my original ideas and giving everything a sense of depth and space that the home recordings didn’t have.
Man, I second guessed that piano entrance a thousand times, but couldn’t shake it.
I do love the way that the delayed percussion hit dynamically crashes around the stereo field.
Again, I am grateful for that cello performance… so damn expressive. You can’t write parts like that, they have to be felt.
“The Old Straight Track”
This began as a completely abstract ambient piece. I had no idea it would become part of this album. As I was improvising vocal melodies one winter morning, the words, patterns, phrasing, and melodies just seemed to come out of nowhere. I did have to put down some low-end synth notes to give the vocal changes some solid earth to stand on.
The title was taken from a book written in the 1920s by Albert Watkins in which he attempts to explain that archaeological mounds, stones, and other sites in Britain followed straight “ley lines.” It was largely dismissed as new age bullshit, but it made sense as a title for this piece to accompany my contemplation of the connection of spirit to land and the lyrical juxtaposition of the elements.
We have the sea
And we’ll always have the sky
I stole the last two lines from one of my own poems, which ultimately became the impetus for writing and releasing my first published work of poetry simultaneously with this album. My poems have only ever lived and died in my private journals or have been ransacked for words, phrases, or lines when I am writing lyrics. I felt guilty taking those two lines. The poem I stole them from felt perfect the way it was and now having been reduced to lyric fodder, it would become meaningless without the first two lines. In the end I decided to accept that lyrics and poems serve two separate functions and that I could keep the lines in both. It was then I pledged to write a set of poems with the intention of allowing them to live their own poetic life undisturbed by my lyrical thievery.
The french horn part played by Aaron Korn really hits the spot. I have been wanting to use french horn on my recordings since before I began recording solo just over 20 years ago.
I believe this was the first piano chord progression of the entire project, birthed there in the corner of my wife’s childhood bedroom in Northern Germany, staring out the window at the old barn and long tilled plot of land that her family has lived on for over 500 years. It is not what the song is about, but the energy of that place runs through this entire album.
While improvising words and vocal melodies to accompany this music, I must have really enjoyed singing some of these lines because I found myself circling back and revisiting phrases that felt right in different combinations throughout to the end, to where the last verses are almost like summaries or echoes of the words preceding them.
Reach for the infinite deep
The wilderness inside our minds
The emptiness swallows us all
Bleeding all over our lives
Now that I am halfway through the album, I realize that it is easier for me to listen to this album than past efforts. Usually once an album has been written, labored over, revisited, recorded, mixed, and mastered I don’t want to hear it anymore and I move on to new things unless I need to listen for rehearsal purposes. Since I never felt that I had intentionally created this album and never seemed to labor over it, it still feels fresh and vibrant to me. That is unusual and a blessing.
Time to flip the record.
“Trail the Silent Hours”
I love that opening texture. The field recording of the seaside was the initial sound meant to sit behind the sparse music, but most of what you are hearing was an accident. Upon turning on my main studio power switch one day, this wild regeneration sound started self-oscillating in one of my old digital delay units, there was no way I would be able to recreate this sound, so I quickly hit record and captured it. It blends perfectly with the field recording becoming some sort of moody flock of digital seabirds echoing on a fictional shoreline.
Musically and lyrically this is the most subdued piece on the album. It has always spoken to me of an unspecified sadness that cannot be understood, but has to be gone through and transcended.
Seek shelter in surrender, but don’t give in
“Shadows on the Run”
This track was built on top of three different arhythmic piano loops. Each loop was treated differently using various guitar effect pedals. I didn’t bother with correcting the impedance of the signal to go from the recorder to the pedals because the lo-fi effect I was achieving by hooking it up incorrectly was way more sonically compelling.
Being that this album was completed a year ago, I didn’t intend for these particular lyrics to feel so relevant to our current reality.
If you want to save us from
The house that is burning down
Lead us through the flame
Remember all our names
Call it what you will
The deadliest of all
Takes all that we adore
And everything we’ve known
Sometimes lyrics can feel like a divinatory practice similar to reading tea leaves, the I Ching, tarot cards, or casting runes. The words take on a new life over time as they frame your experience. Meanings of songs might not reveal themselves until years after they are written. Of course sometimes they remain a mystery forever. I’m alright with that.
Perhaps this has something to do with shamanic healing practices, plant medicine and revelatory experiences that reveal the difference between the seeker’s true self and the armored ego on display for the world to see.
And speaking of divination:
Tear out my entrails to decipher
Wounded dream, fragile and phantom
Nightshade high country, oscillations
Motionless yet manifest
Again, thanks to Randall Dunn for getting such great sounds on this. He really added that extra dimension that it needed. I am excited about the new pathways this album process has opened for me to explore.
Thanks for listening!