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Complex and rewarding, but one for established fans
on 7 April 2013
It's taken me a long time to get around to reviewing this album, and that's because it's taken me an awful long time to get around to enjoying this album. If you're a newcomer to Sonny Landreth's music then I don't suggest you start here. Begin with South of I-10 or Levee Town (Remastered + Bonus Disc)to best experience the intensely complex interweaving of slide-guitar, southern sounds and philosophical lyrics - or try From The Reach for a more commercial collection with plenty of superstar guest appearances.
Elemental Journey is an entirely different experience. It feels like an album for people who are already intimately acquainted with Sonny's sublime style of Strat-slide, for whom the familiar flourishes and complex fingerwork elicit echoes of much-loved melodies. And it's entirely instrumental which is more than a little challenging at times - without the firm ground of lyrics to guide the listener towards the core of each composition. Rather than the songwriter sharing (baring) his soul in obvious fashion, the instrumental demands rather more of the listener. The tracks become open far more to personal interpretation, so pretty much you get out what you put in. Having said that, I deeply missed the moments of perfection which have graced all of Sonny's previous albums, where words met music in an ideal instant and fused into that magical thing... no matter how good the music on this album, it has to make do without those instants of pure poetry.
As usual, my least favourite tracks are those where the guest guitarists and Sonny seem to be competing rather than collaborating. Satch is unmistakable on 'Gaia Tribe' but it's one of the hardest tracks to engage with on an emotional level, despite its sweeping musical landscape. Eric Johnson's contribution to 'Passionola' is far more comfortable, where the two styles complement each other and create a satisfying whole which is greater than the sum of its parts.
For me, the album would have been better starting with the second track, 'For You and Forever', where Sonny melds a nimble dance of elfin elegance with a satisfying, uplifting core theme. Similarly, 'Wonderide' is an inspiring slice of pure Sonny-sound, only enhanced by the subtle addition of the string accompaniment from the Acadiana Symphony Orchestra. Likewise, I've become accustomed to the addition of steel drums on 'Forgotten Story', not an obvious choice of instrument but there's a glorious overlap in the tremolo tone of both the drums and the Strat. 'Letting Go' is lovely; a wistful development of a deceptively simple melody with a gorgeous timbre to its perfectly paced central solo. 'Reckless Beauty' is one for the live fans - a typical brash and fast, foot-tappin' frenzy.
The best is, inevitably, saved until last, and the final track 'Opening Sky' is the only one on this album which has curled its tendrils fully into my innards. Discord and harmony; notes warping with teeth-tingling sharp edges; a powerful development of the theme to its compelling catharsis - with Sonny's neat trick of subverting your expectations and not quite going in the direction you expect, yet still reaching an emotional peak that leaves you wanting it to never stop. It's on my list of fave Sonny tracks of all time, that one. The CD doesn't leave the player without at least two spins of Track 11...
One slight disappointment is that Dave Ransom's bass is a long way back in the mix on most of this album. Without doubt, Sonny is the star of this bottle rocket trio, but Ransom's always worth listening out for. This time, you have to do a lot of listening. Also absent in the main are Sonny's famous 'ghost notes', the spooky, behind-the-glass slices of surreal sound that capture the attention - you'll know when you hear them, because you'll find you've been holding your breath.
So, like I said, not an easy album to enjoy initially. Over time I've grown to like more of it - but equally every time I play it I'm prompted to dig out an older Sonny CD and listen to that immediately after. Because, no matter how technically accomplished it is, where Elemental Journey succeeds the most is in reminding you what's missing from it.