Jeremy Gilchrist has an unusual way with words. At his best, the Winooski-by-way-of-North-Carolina songwriter leaves room for the listener to contemplate his meaning. Gilchrist bills himself as a "thought-provoking" songwriter. And at times on his new album, Causality, he is, crafting hazily poetic suites that invite introspection and interpretation. But his unconventional phrasing and word choices, while often bold, leave a thin margin for error. As frequently as listeners are apt to contemplate his meaning, they are just as likely to wonder, What the hell does he mean?
At times, both reactions occur within the framework of a single song. For example, take the album's fourth track, "The Time Traveler." Over the insistent thrum of an acoustic guitar, Gilchrist sings sweetly, "It's hard to know where I've been / In a mind with so many strings / Visions of timelines I've changed / Lives rearranged." It's a regretful, retrospective lament made even more potent by a second verse in which he asks, "Resonating dream and fears / Was it for me or them?" Then comes this head-scratcher: "When I get home I'll destroy the machine / Throw the pieces in the paradoxical sea." Even if we set aside that Gilchrist mispronounces the word "paradoxical" as "paradoxial," the lines are simply overwritten, which is perhaps his greatest weakness. In the same song, he later sings of "multiversal voices."
Such passages suggest Gilchrist is guilty of trying a little too hard to impress with fancy wordsmithing. The thing is, he doesn't have to. He's a naturally gifted singer whose reedy tone evokes a blend of David Gray and Adam Duritz. Like those singers, he knows his way around a sticky melody. And he seems to be a fair hand at arranging moody folk pop, to boot.
When Gilchrist simply relies on those talents and favors subtlety over flair in his writing, the results are impressive. For instance, there's "Everybody's Story," which harks to Automatic for the People-era REM in style and tone. Here, he writes plainly but tenderly on frailty and the human condition. The empathy and compassion in his voice and words are hard to resist.
"Clocks on the Wall" is similarly nuanced and just as effective. Ditto the album closer "Great Escape." With a melody and delivery that hint at a healthy admiration for Neil Young, here Gilchrist spins a bleary-eyed tale of emotional redemption, placing the listener directly in his shoes as he wanders and wonders in a predawn cityscape. Even a rather jarring scatting section helps build a sense of unease and disillusionment. That he's able to do that with no words speaks to the potential that exists in Jeremy Gilchrist when he chooses his words carefully.
Causality by Jeremy Gilchrist is available at jeremygilchrist.bandcamp.com. Gilchrist plays an album-release show at Radio Bean in Burlington on Saturday, November 1.