ALL RENDERED TRUTH
The summer I graduated college I had two months to kill under a suffocating heat wave in my hometown of Greenville, South Carolina, before escaping to grad school in Massachusetts. The African Methodist Episcopal Zion church installed their tent revival in the parking lot of the long-abandoned Kash & Karry Grocery store down the street from my best friend Wyatt’s apartment. Each night, we sought repair in ice-cold canned beers and the camaraderie of the back porch, listening as long, dense sermons haunted the neighbourhood.
Wyatt, our Neal Cassady, pursued Southern history in an anthropological style equal parts W.J. Cash, Alan Lomax, and Hunter S. Thompson. The pull of the tent revival was too strong for him to resist, and one night we found ourselves perched on the curb, watching as the preacher, flanked by two young musicians, a drummer and an organist, charted the soul’s path to from damnation to salvation.
I could hear the origins of free jazz in those sounds: a subversion of form, abandoning verse-chorus in favour of a dense and immediate present; individual expression tempered by group exploration, and faith in the revelations offered by collective improvisation.
I kept thinking about the dense shape and sound of those sermons while wrapping my ears around Alabama sculptor and artist Lonnie Holley’s recently released Just Before Music (Dust to Digital). My wife, a fellow Alabaman, introduced me to Holley’s art many years ago via an Alabama Public Television documentary on his now-destroyed art environment on Birmingham’s outskirts.
Holley seemed profound and wise beyond his years as he led the camera through his landscape of shape-shifting sculptures fashioned from detritus, wire, and stone, explaining his philosophy, “ART IS,” in a manner akin to fellow Magic City native Sun Ra. This mantra returns in the album’s opening track, “Looking For All,” where Holley decodes, “Art is for all, R is for rendered, T is for truth, I is internal, S is for self.”
Employing only his voice, a synthesizer, an occasional rhythm or Fender Rhodes, Holley’s songs are uncannily minimal, casting drones and cinematic scores as spell-binding as Tangerine Dream, and as sparse as William Basinski’s loops. Timmy Thomas’ solo soul classic Why Can’t We Live Together, which similarly employs only organ and voice to great effect is another parallel. But Thomas’ album, and much soul music that followed, relied upon the `60s Civil Rights movement’s faith in God to make things right.
Holley’s examination of the present operates on a more granular level free of the miraculous, where life has been disrupted by technological and economic change, complicated personal trauma. Neither overly romantic for the past, nor entirely damning of the future, Holley’s narratives, like in “5th Child Burning,” describe how our contemporary anxieties are no longer hidden in a “box of secret things in the closet” but are stored in cell phone memory, consuming more energy to power, more effort to retrieve, and more money to afford.
Holley seems possessed of a higher power to reveal personal and universal truths in an attempt to make sense of hardships, from his meager Alabama origins, the death of his two nieces in a fire, to his rebirth in art. In “Mama’s Little Baby,” Holley’s vocals recall Gil Scott Heron’s meditative sing-song, describing his odyssey from “cotton fields to the industrial field to the technological field” over an organ loop that would be at home on a Terry Riley or Robert Ashley record.
“The End of the Film Era,” bears resemblance to the late-period work of avant crooner Scott Walker in both drone and language. Here, Holley outlines a secret history of human fallibility as we transition from analog to digital, film to chips, TVs to iPhones, singing, “the necessity of our reality, how technology would manage us, how we would become weaker but wiser.”
Holley’s Just Before Music has few equals. In his quest to render all truths, personal and collective, material and cosmic, Holley gives new form and language to our present condition, new tones for reflection. Holley’s record is a world unto itself, where the boundaries between the interior and the exterior are blurred to reveal that place where ART IS.
By Daniel Presnell