Skullsplitter is an example of how often assumption can be the mother of all fudge-ups. Foolishly embracing ignorance over journalistic rigour, I plumped for the ill-informed presumption that this was going to be yet another album by a North American guitarist (I’d established that much) with a large collection of Robbie Basho and John Fahey records and a surely over-hyped skill at fingerpicking. There have been quite a few of those of late, none of them worth noting with the same enthusiasm the masters. But as it turns out, Eric Chenaux is galaxies away from American Primitivism as it is generally understood (maybe this is Canadian Primitivism?), as a composer, guitarist and, crucially, singer. Indeed, he sits somewhere at the crossroads of multiple styles, and Skullsplitter sounds totally unlike any other solo album I’ve heard this year. So that’s taught me a lesson.
Chenaux’s music is both familiar and bizarre, which is predominantly down to the way he melds acoustic and electric guitar. His approach to the acoustic is consistent with the American Primitive scene, albeit played at a slower pace: he gently plucks notes on nylon strings, coaxing out gentle melodies that form the backbones of most of the nine songs on the album, often underlining them with subtle electronic textures and ambient-esque melodica lines. These simple frames are then built upon when Chenaux plucks up his electric guitar and feeds into wah pedals and other effects that seem to collide with one another rather than meld into extensions of the acoustic melodies, creating offbeat song structures that seem to pull away from one another even as he tugs them into a whole. Chugging half-riffs and warbling solos swim around one another, sometimes looped, at other seemingly improvised on the fly, twisting the basic, immediately recognisable formulas at the heart of his songs into new, unfamiliar forms.
On opener “Have I Lost My Eyes?”, for example, woozy wah-wahed notes wibble and wobble behind a lead melody played on unamplified electric guitar whilst lower notes wooze along listlessly underneath. It’s probably the most peculiar track onSkullsplitter, hazy and punch-drunk, possessed by a strange form of melancholy even as, lyrically, Chenaux lurches into the surreally humourous (“Have I lost my eyes?/Is that twinkle in my mind?”). On the lengthy “Poor Time”, his shaky, kazoo-like notes on electric (I’m reminded a bit of some of Rusty Kershaw’s playing on Neil Young’s On The Beach) bounce around somewhat aimlessly, with only the most minimal of picked acoustic notes to guide them; whilst Chenaux’s instrumental take on the classic “My Romance” is all extended feedback-laden notes and echoey drone. This unpredictability is key to Chenaux’s music: at times he seems to be deliberately confounding familiarity. Maybe he’s aware that presumptuous fools like me are out there.
But if that sounds needlessly opaque, fear not, for coherence on the album is assured through Chenaux’s singular voice. It’s a delicate croon, somewhere between Antony Hegarty and Bryan Ferry, with perhaps a hint of old timers like Sinatra (hence “My Romance”, even if performed without vocals). It’s a warm, melancholic sound, which reaches aching heights of potency on the title track, a simple, heart-rending tune on which Chenaux tunes his guitar to sound like a muffled organ (I’m assuming — that word again — that it is a guitar) leaving a wide tapestry on which to unfurl his lustrous, emotionally resonant vocals. And this might be the only real flaw on Skullsplitter: whilst on some tracks, such as “Have I Lost My Eyes?”, the weird structures and deformed melodies might be intriguing or even striking, at other times they sit awkwardly alongside Chenaux’s pristine meditations on love and loneliness, striking jarring notes that ultimately undermine the listener’s ability to fully lose oneself in the music.
That’s a minor quibble, however, and one that fades as the best tracks unfurl their graceful wings, with even some of the instrumentals hitting with a similar force as “Skullsplitter” and closer “Summer & Time”, and I’ve found myself drifting back to this album time and time again, seeking comfort in its woozy warmth. Skullsplitter is ultimately that: comforting, even more so than it is odd, and in either case, Eric Chenaux kicks my silly preconceptions into the dirt.