Texas-born Chris Whitley was initially steeped in pure Americana; who can forget his 1991 debut Living With The Law and its otherworldly evocations of dusty ruralities and big sky country? Since then, though, the National steel virtuoso has traveled the tangents, from jazz to psychedelia to acoustic blues to all-covers sets. He’s even spent the last couple of years living in what used to be East Germany — hardly a cauldron of twang.
But momentarily at least, Whitley’s journeys have brought him back to ground zero. Soft Dangerous Shores was produced by his first disc’s producer, Malcolm Burn, and it’s steeped in the same kind of elemental wanderlust that made the earlier set so memorable. The first words you hear him utter are, “Say once before you go, before I’m gone/Two could return where both belong.” As the fever dream that is “Fireroad” unfolds amid atmospheric acoustics, woozy keyboards, and Whitley’s ghostly falsetto, the impression of profound restlessness is inescapable.
That feeling lingers throughout, across the throbbing eroticism of the title track (a nod to French surrealist Andre Breton) and the sinewy blues of “As Day Is Long”, to the synth-strewn impressionism of “Last Million Miles” and the banjo-fueled earthiness of the closing track “Breath Of Shadows”. On the latter, Whitley finds himself in some woman’s bed and muttering, cryptically, “And you travel/Inhalations/Breath of shadows/Last us now till our return.” One imagines Whitley slipping quietly out of that bed, compelled to resume his wandering. For with his musical track record, why would he settle down now?