Phil Cook and Hiss Golden Messenger tend to attract a slew of incredible musicians and songwriters into their orbit, and one of them is Ryan Gustafson. Recording as The Dead Tongues, Gustafson has been on a consistent run over the last decade, but his latest release hits differently. Transmigration Blues establishes him as a voice to behold as he reflects on his experiences on the road, his spirituality, and significant heartbreaks that have punctuated his life thus far.
Through a heady mix of roots and cosmic pop sounds, Gustafson examines the unglamorous, transient side of making a life as an artist, in all its gritty detail. The constant desire to connect with others, the lack of money and support, the living day to day and surviving on the bare minimum. His voice is clear and strong, with a bluegrassy twang, and it is complemented by shimmery arrangements of strings, banjo, and guitar. “Deep Water, Strange Wind” is a sweeping, mystical standout that goes down easy. “Bama Boys Circa 2005” is a nostalgic ride in the back of a van, emotional even as he recounts freewheeling debauchery. “Peaceful Ambassador” opens the record with Gustafson’s warm howl, an ode to this unpredictable life and those who sacrificially paved the way before him.
All across Transmigration Blues, Gustafson shows his penchant for melody. He creates these huge, swooning moments in his choruses that make your stomach flutter and your eyes water. Emphasized by themes of starting fresh and becoming who you’re meant to be, his songs hit even harder, deeper. “Equinox Receiver” builds a seamless connection between rich harmonica runs and vocal harmonies as it speaks to the vastness of uncertainty of our place on this earth and the need for something simpler. The album’s title track speaks to the gestational process of emptying yourself for the sake of making songs and telling your stories. “It’s a different kind of freedom / saying it aloud,” Gustafson sings hopefully, articulating that distinct pleasure that can only come from pain.