The experimental, twitchy pop of Gunnar Nagle
Gunnar Nagle doesn’t make music that is overtly nostalgic or about the past. If anything, the sound is futuristic. His soulful and adventurous indie-pop is very much the product of the digital era, sounding like music crafted by someone who’s spent a lot of time hunching over a laptop looking at the spikes and dips of digital audio files on a screen. Nagle releases his debut full-length album Big Dreams, Sweet Maybes this week. Underdog Records in Winston-Salem will host a listening party on Saturday, July 20, from 3 to 5 p.m., to celebrate the release of the album on vinyl.
It’s a record that sounds informed by the tendency toward abstraction in contemporary hip-hop production styles, and a fondness for abrupt jump-cuts and extreme contrasts that many indie artists have been moving toward for several years now. It’s not exactly the kind of record that someone comes up with by just sitting around strumming an acoustic guitar or messing around on a piano. The sound of technology is cooked into the music. It’s not hard to hear a connection to performers like Bon Iver, King Krule, Francis & the Lights, or the Dirty Projectors in Nagle’s songs.
If Nagle’s music isn’t exactly retro, he does make a few gestures toward the past and childhood. The album cover is a visual play on the classic children’s book Goodnight Moon, with its distinctive green room showing a view of the blue night sky. Instead of the signature fireplace and painting from the original book, there’s a table with an analog synth. Think of the record as a kind of sonic bedtime story for the Moog set. The first song on the record is “94,” which refers to the year Nagle was born. There are allusions to artists who were breaking out in 1994 — artists like Beck and Nine Inch Nails.
“Got a call back for a speaking part in a new version of my life,” goes one of the lines. It may be a stretch to say, but there’s the idea of reworking source material, circling back on the past from a new vantage point, tinkering with an original, all of which is at work in the music.
That opening track, like many of the ones that follow, has elements that sound processed and reprocessed, signals that get run through effects, played back, overdriven, pitch-adjusted, reversed, tweaked, submerged in a bath of sonic glitter to the point where one can’t tell what’s organic and what’s not, what’s a shimmer from the machine or a breath of the human touch. And that’s part of the point.
Nagle said that each song emerges in its own way, from different elements piled up. One might start with a guitar riff, another from a voice memo, or with an improvised vocal scat over a drum machine.
“I’m not totally sure what everything is,” said Nagle, referring to the mesh of musical details. He said he wanted to take advantage of the new technology, to use a “digital approach to songwriting.” Rather than using technology to approximate a live-sounding recording, Nagle embraced the collagist results, even if things might sound “obviously manipulated and strange” to some.
Juxtaposing the lo-fi with the hi-fi was part of the aesthetic.
“Those two components existing next to each other have a kind of cosmic energy,” Nagle said.
Such extreme contrasts anchor the record. The second track, “First Time,” is built up around layered hand-claps that sketch a kind of Caribbean rhythm that gets loaded with bottomed-out synth basslines and wild stereo panning, which gives the whole thing a woozy effect on headphones. It might summon a comparison to PJ Harvey’s similarly subaquatic-sounding “Down By The Water,” another song from that sweet-spot in the mid-’90s.
Nagle released an earlier EP, Over Easy, back in 2017. The new material is a bit of a departure from that last effort, the songs of which seemed more guitar-centric and straight-forward. Those songs sounded like something that a band could realistically come up within the practice room.
Big Dreams, Sweet Maybes is a different animal. In places, one gets the feeling that Nagle has listened closely to the sound of fried circuitry, and he liked what he heard. Nagle makes artful use of what some might call noise. It’s sort of the 21st-century version of an early rock ‘n’ roller taking the gnarly sound of a distorted cheap guitar and turning it into a stylistic asset, or the same with a hip-hop artist transforming the sound of hissing and scratchy records and making that a textural groundwork for the music itself. A nice glitchy-twitchy vibe is sprinkled throughout Nagle’s record. That’s offset by the very human blend of the vocals, as well as the layers of saxophone played by Joseph Dowdy. The horns get stacked and multi-tracked in places, creating a choir-like effect.
The experimentation is intended to spur a response and a reaction in the listener. While making the record, Nagle figured that if a moment, technique or an inspired guess captured his own interest in the studio, then that had a value.
“I’m not one to deny a gut feeling,” he said. Nagle wanted there to be something “ephemeral and immediate” about it. Sometimes the blind stabs or wild tinkerings had a special touch.
“The things that I hold on to the most are the blemishes,” Nagle said.
Indeed, the song “Needs Fixing” sounds like it’s almost about the very idea of embracing an imperfection, a scar, or maybe a sonic smear as a detail that adds character and meaning to the whole. The fragmentary track, which is little more than a minute long, is built around what sounds like a loop of a detuned voice memo of someone saying, “To me, that doesn’t need fixing – there’s something about that I really love.” A scrap of march-like drum programming dematerializes as fizzy synth burbles float up like bubbles in champagne, and then the song shifts into a dreamy music-box-ish section.
In conjunction with the release of the album, Nagle is coordinating a private live show and video project at the Wherehouse Art Hotel in Winston-Salem, with a number of his collaborators and other artists he admires. It’s the first time the music will really get a full live public performance. And in a flourish, a kind of real-life jump cut that fits in with his music, Nagle, who’s lived most of his life in Winston-Salem, will move to New York City next month.
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.
Gunnar Nagle’s Big Dreams, Sweet Maybes comes out on July 19. Nagle celebrates the release with a listening party at Undergod Records, 835 Burke St., Winston-Salem, on Saturday, July 20, from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.