Just about halfway through Ghost, the debut album from Atlanta singer/guitarist Robbie Horlick's latest musical offering, Book Club, he sings, "Music is supposed to heal, to act as heat, to mend and seal/But music is my open wound, the hurt that makes me think of you." It's a heartbreaking admission, one that wholly accentuates the unsettled feelings of vulnerability that breathe life into the new album of lovers' woe. Desolation, boredom, loneliness and doubt push each of the album's 10 tracks along, but Horlick's voice always brings with it a glimmer of hope, keeping oblivion at bay.
While mulling over his songwriting during an interview over the phone, Horlick humbly brushes off the gravity of his lyrics. "I'm just trying to make simple and honest songs," he says. But such modesty undermines the darkness that's hangs in the air long after the song "I Can't Dance With Just Your Ghost" has faded into fellow vocalist Leigh Anne Macquarrie's desecrated promises on "Ain't Gonna Drink No More."
Existential turmoil is only one of the album's strengths. Ghost sticks to classic form, drawing inspiration from folk, country and pop sounds that sidestep the indie folk clichés. The album's nebulous sound could have been captured in 1961 or 2011, and the tension that swells within the album's weary boy-girl tales is as timeless as the gap between Adam and Eve.
"It's about building out from folk form," says Horlick, the former vocalist, frontman and main songwriter behind the now-defunct indie pop act Cassavetes, who devoted himself to the project when three-fourths of Cassavetes' final lineup went on to form local stoner-rock monster Wizard Smoke. "Cassavetes was just one kind of music that comes out of me," he says. "I wanted to flesh out some of the folkier songs I'd written, explore new instrumentation and harmony without any rules."
Such a radical switching of gears from his previous pop excursions emerged as an exercise in restraint. "There's only so much that a nylon-stringed guitar can do. In an inverse way, it keeps you on your toes when you don't have a bunch of effects pedals to play with."
All of these elements are woven together in an impressive departure from his previous group's second and final album, Faja Blues. Never had Horlick's songwriting hinted at the demons he was keeping at bay, nor did it evoke his heady obsessions with desperation and deliverance that give Ghost such a brooding, primitive shine. Now, paired with Macquarrie (their relationship is strictly musical) and a lineup featuring Matt Jarrard of Oryx and Crake (cello), Lee Goldenberg (bass), and Joseph War (percussion and banjo), Book Club's songs reveal layers of troubling experiences.
Horlick's nostalgia for the better times belies a sense that something has gone horribly awry on Ghost. As he and Macquarrie's respective characters harmonize on morality in "Praying Sound," their words mirror each other, even as their voices create a dichotomy. Horlick's delivery is imbued with remorse; but when Macquarrie sings the same words she sounds wiser and world-weary, offering a warning of things to come if he doesn't change his ways.
But not all of the songs are sung in first-person. "Going to Jail Blues," for example, starts off as a courtroom tale, but as it unfolds it's clear that it could easily be a metaphor about relationships. Delivered in second-person, the "you" serves as the narrators' internal dialogue, allowing them to distance themselves from the song's emotional range.
Ghost draws to a close with an ambiguous number, "Not Much For Chit Chat." On the surface, the song is a dreary back-and-forth between two partners that have nothing to talk about. Both Horlick and Macquarrie stretch their voices to impressively languid limits, but their "I can't help it if I'm bored" banter has many layers. Do they have nothing in common anymore, or are they so close that their communication transcends words? Either way, it's a touching exchange that wraps up both misery and hopefulness with simple, haunting closure. Whether such uncertainty was intended or not, it's a dynamic that can't easily be brushed off as each tale lingers long after the album is over.