The first album released by Willard Grant Conspiracy since 2009’s Paper Covers Stone features songs written by the partnership of Robert Fisher and David Curry. They also play all instruments– notably featuring Curry’s atmospheric viola, played in a style reminiscent of Warren Ellis. Fischer takes most lead vocals, his dry baritone adding a dark intimacy to the music. He is Willard Grant Conspiracy’s sole permanent member, but the collaboration with Curry has the sound of a long-established partnership, with lyrics and music wrapping together in constantly evolving patterns.
The idea of Ghost Republic grew from a character created by Fisher for a book of poems about the ghost town of Bodie in the Sierras. From such phantasmagorical beginnings, the album is very organic, brimming with meditations on humanity and place, and nestled within a cradle of creativity encompassing the album, book and a short film.
Ghost Republic is largely occupied with Californian nature resurgent and vicious, from the town abandoned in the desert to the salinated but subsequently reclaimed Mono Lake and the deadly snakes of ‘Rattle and Hiss’. Despite this it is by no means a concept album, moving from abstractions of grand wilderness to the minutely personal. On the title song, such counterpoints are made explicit in the first and final lines: ‘When I think of you I think of yellow hills’ / ‘When I think of you I think less of me’. ‘Piece of Pie,’ with Curry providing both lyrics and vocals, features emotionally-driven snapshots of everyday life that might have come from the pen of the Eels’s E.
Such moments of individual sentiment emerge between instrumental pieces and lyrically pared-down portraits encapsulating moments of loss. In ‘Perry Wallis’ the eponymous character’s worldly belongings are distributed or deemed ‘all wore out … not good for any other man’ after his death; the tragedy of death eclipsed by the practicality of those who live on. Meanwhile ‘The Only Child’ illustrates an orphan caught in the tragedy of loss, the core of her being rooted in the afterlife: ‘Mary, Mary not so contrary, mercy in your garden grow. Light the tapers, sleep like swallows, dream of angels bathing in public squares.’
The songs often end up in unexpected places, stopping at all points between the loving and the brutal, the traditionally acoustic and the savagely distorted. Ghost Republic does not make for easy listening, but it is frequently beautiful and thought-provoking, with moments of aptly haunting inscrutability.