Nels Cline first dreamed of Lovers 25 years ago. The intention from the start was to map those territories where love, romance and music intersect. More explicitly, Cline has written that the record is intended to be both personal and universal in its sounds and in the choice of material, a way to both champion and challenge “our iconic notion of romance.” It’s an ambitious concept and one that few instrumentalists could carry out with nearly flawless execution. Then again, “concept” is too highfalutin a word and Cline is one of those few capable of such execution. There’s something about this new two-disc set, Cline’s first for Blue Note, that dodges the intellectual and instead goes straight for the heart. It’s arguable that we listen first with our hearts – second with our ears – thus make the organ feature on the album’s cover a fitting choice.

This deeply evocative music is culled from a variety of sources including Rodgers and Hart, Sonic Youth and Cline himself, while culling inspiration a list of artists ranging from Bill Evans to Jim Hall to Henry Mancini and Johnny Mandel. Love isn’t portrayed here as an idyllic, constant state, nor does the music attempt to play upon all the clichéd emotions at expected times. Despite boasting several compositions entrenched in the lexicon of standards and often sounding like a classic jazz record from the 1950s or 1960s, Lovers isn’t a nostalgia trip. Rather it is both a eulogy and a renaissance for how romantic love is portrayed in music. Today, popular music often suggests that live is binary, a blink on or off. Love is of course more complex than that, acting as a series of offs, ons and all stages in between. Lovers recognizes that sentimentality can be beautiful and that even the heart’s darker moments can express beauty. Lovers pulls the camera back and looks at all the joys and pitfalls of its subject. Love, this collection suggests, is indeed a double album and not a three-minute single or four-minute dance remix.

The opening “Introduction/ Diaphanous” comes from Cline himself, yet sounds remarkably in sync with the gorgeous 1931 waltz “Beautiful Love,” with its sweeping notions of the heart. It also works well beside “Glad to Be Unhappy,” from the 1936 musical On Your Toes. Each exudes hope and melancholy in almost equal supply. By the time Cline’s reading of Jimmy Giuffre’s “Cry, Want” closes out the first side, we are hopelessly addicted to the story, though cautious as to where it will take us next.

We have traveled from the initial rush to joy and disappointment to those somber moments when we recognize that love is, or can be, fleeting. All within the space of a single album side. Luckily, this isn’t a record that demands we listen from end to end in one sitting. It is an album about contemplation, not consumption. Like a Greek allegory or masterful symphony, this is art that asks us to live with it for a while rather than proffer a grand declaration of its brilliance.

This isn’t about racing toward the end but instead about savoring the story as its nuances reveal themselves. Thus, we ease into the second side with Gabor Szabo’s otherworldly “Lady Gabor” and enjoy two of Cline’s most sublime compositions, “The Bed We Made” and “You Noticed.” Thus, easing into the second side, with Gabor Szabo’s otherworldly “Lady Gabor” leading the charge and two of Cline’s own pieces (“The Bed We Made” and “You Noticed”) rubbing elbows with Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein as well as Sammy Fain, becomes not about racing toward the end but about savoring the story as it reveals itself. The unspoken emotional content reveals its own complications and probing questions, some of them unsettling and uncomfortable. So when the curtain opens on the subsequent act via “Why Was I Born?” there’s a sense that the clouds are lifting and we can once more dream our wide-eyed dreams.

There is a narrative arc to this set, but it is one that allows the listener to reflect on their own experiences, their own triumphs and defeats in matters of the heart. The Arto Lindsay and Peter Scherer number “It Only Has to Happen Once” has all the push and pull and tantalizing anguish of Cole Porter. It also sits nicely with many of the songs here written during the early decades of the last century. This despite having been born in the late 1980s on the second Ambitious Lovers release, Greed. Its melodic and harmonic inclinations are impeccable and Cline and co. give it a marvelous new life that reaches well beyond what most of us would have imagined possible for the song.

Genius, imagination and inspiration are all present in equal measure here, especially as Cline recasts Sonic Youth’s “Snare, Girl” in the company of the always-remarkable Annette Peacock’s “So Hard It Hurts/Touching.” Hearing these songs together, one wonders how they were ever apart. Hearing them in this setting makes it difficult to imagine them any other way. That, of course, is the marvel of standards, that they can be imagined and re-imagined. Cline’s stamp on these compositions suggests that his vision for them will be how we think of these tunes for some time to come.

Cline’s guitar work is effortless, fluid and lyrical throughout, his command of the instrument right now an indication that his best work still lays ahead of him. He has also assembled a group of more than 20 players whose grasp of subtlety and arrangement exceeds expectations in that they are not merely attempting to recapture the sounds of a bygone era. Rather they are laying the groundwork for a new era, one that eschews irony in favor of sincerity. Cline’s brother Alex, along with the incomparable Kenny Wolleson, handles drums and percussion, while wunderkind guitarist Julian Lage serves as a complementary instrumental voice. There are clarinets and trumpets, saxophones and bassoons and a sense that what this ensemble has done is something transformative, restorative. We buy into the dream thanks to their efforts. It seems then that Cline’s dream of a record that would explore these thematic, emotional and musical connections can be considered a success.

For as much as love and romance are idealized, there are, of course, things about both that are often less than ideal. It seems that there is just as much art dedicated to the aftermath of love as there is to its soft focus beginning. Art can make us fall in love any faster it seems, nor can it help us avoid the pitfalls. It can, however, allow us to heal and to dream. Maybe that, above all else, is the value of a record such as Lovers, that it allows us to imagine that neither love nor beauty are fleeting, then soothes our disappointment when we realize that they are.

  • John Coltrane: Ballads/A Love Supreme

    Does the world really need a 55th-anniversary remaster of A Love Supreme, without any extr…
  • Low Cut Connie: Private Lives

    Weiner’s comfort standing on instruments and running through crowds once overshadowed the …
  • Nasty: Menace

    Those who want a solid summation of what modern beatdown is all about, look no further. …

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Check Also

Hunt Sales Memorial: Get Your Shit Together

Stamped into his personality and his music is a boldness that commands respect. …