Nels Cline is the epitome of “been there, done that”. A musician’s musician, he cut his teeth in the ‘80s playing in a variety of jazz bands with (and without) his twin brother drummer Alex before moving on to more alternative/punk territory with collaborators like Mike Watt and Thurston Moore. As a solo artist, sideman and band member, his angular, deft guitar playing was the linchpin of countless recordings by an enormous variety of artists. His recognition factor upped about a thousand percent in 2004 when he became Wilco’s lead guitarist. This was a win-win for both camps: after the firing of power pop wunderkind Jay Bennett and the departure of multi-instrumentalist Leroy Bach, Jeff Tweedy’s alt-country outfit was in need of a secret weapon, and Cline delivered, slathering the band’s songs with an eclectic and tuneful complexity.
But through all his different phases, all the impressive résumé bullets, the album that Cline has been wanting to make for a quarter century has been left unmade – until now. Lovers is not only his first release on the much-vaunted Blue Note label, it’s also a project that’s been on his mind for years. “I have been dreaming about, planning, and re-working my rather obsessive idea of this record for well over 25 years, and it was always going to be called Lovers,” Cline explains in the album’s official press release. It’s his most personal album, his most intimate-sounding one, and – considering his penchant for avant-jazz guitar skronk and layers of effects – perhaps his most accessible one.
This is not to say that Lovers is free of uniqueness or edge; in fact, the blending of arrangements and diversity of songwriters helps give the album a unique flavor, and his ability to give such a challenging project a seamless coherence is part of what makes Lovers so successful. Backed by ensemble of 23 musicians conducted and arranged by Michael Leonhart, Cline’s guitar meshes beautifully with horns, strings, percussion as well as more traditional jazz/rock instruments. It’s a bit of a family affair as well – Alex plays drums and Yuka Honda (Cibo Matto co-founder as well as Nels’ wife) contributes synthesizer and celeste.
Not unlike the similarly eclectic Brad Mehldau, Cline chooses his material carefully and mixes his own original compositions with jazz standards (both mainstream and obscure) as well as more contemporary fare. As a result, the haunting, graceful elegance of Gabor Szabo’s “Lady Gabor” lives comfortably next to Clines’ lilting original composition “The Bed We Made” without sounding the least bit jarring. The Rodgers/Hart chestnut “Glad to Be Unhappy” glides along at a leisurely pace while the dreamlike Gil Evans-inspired horns and strings and Alex’s brushed drumming provide the perfect backdrop to Nels’ nimble jazz guitar picking – a style his Wilco fans probably didn’t even realize was in his plentiful arsenal of tricks. “Cry, Want” by the legendary, innovative saxophonist and clarinetist Jimmy Giuffre gives the album a bluesy flavor that adds yet another dimension to this unique, multifaceted collection.
While Cline satisfies his new Blue Note bosses with the usual flavor of covers and arrangements, he certainly isn’t above a few nontraditional choices. Sonic Youth’s moody, droning “Snare, Girl” moves into exotic, Latin-tinged territory with an insistent beat and twangy, spacey guitar fills. A similar atmosphere is created with a cover of “It Only Has to Happen Once”, a composition by Arto Lindsay (a not-so-distant musical cousin of Cline’s), originally recorded by Lindsay’s no-wave/bossa nova duo Ambitious Lovers in 1988. In other words, Cline’s more adventurous fans can rest assured that despite making an album of jazzy, self-described “mood music”, he’s still kind of a weirdo.
Cline’s abilities as a composer have never really been in doubt, but it’s particularly striking how well his original material works in this atmosphere. Songs like “Hairpin & Hatbox” and the elegant album closer “The Bond” match the effortlessly gorgeous performances with such strong melodies that you’ll be double-checking the liner notes to make sure that these aren’t long-lost standards from another era. It’s that sense of timelessness — and, yes, mood — that makes Lovers such an essential collection both for Nels Cline fans and anyone who believes in the beauty and power of jazz.