HE’S BEEN away from our ears, has Cheval Sombre, for what? Eight years now, on his own. Yes, how the egg-timer sands run; but Chris Porpora, who guises up for the world of music as Cheval Sombre is back after this time between with not one but, we’re promised, two albums this year. And as we’ll see, time – the passing of it, the inexorability of it, the way it seems to quicken and slow in the conscious experience – that’s a theme running through this work.
His last solo work was Mad Love, which Sonic Cathedral brought forth unto us back in 2012; his last recorded outing was his collaboration with Galaxie 500 and Luna’s Dean Wareham for Double Feature two years back now. His 2009 debut and Mad Love won him a devoted following – go scurry into his back catalogue, learn why for yourself.
It seems serendipitous that, with the ‘rona and the lockdown and all, the globe has wound down to Cheval Sombre’s pace just as he enters his most productive phase. There’s a harmony of pacing; we await.
“I’d been working on something, well, vast,” he revealed at the time of the first single drop, ‘It’s Not Time’, also the lead track here, at the back end of last year. (We’ve embedded that again at the end, cos it’s delicious, it’d be rude not to, and we all need this tonic).
“Earlier [last] year I asked Sonic Cathedral if they’d be up for an audacious release – shooting for the stars, as they say.
“When ‘It’s Not Time’ was chosen as the first hint, it felt like a perfect torchbearer. As always, may it bring sanctuary – a little refuge. Much more to come.”
‘K. So let’s get this cleared up; in a world full of artists shorn of live interactions, there’s a lot of lovely lockdown records emerging. What else is a musician to do? But Time Waits For No One isn’t one. What it is, however, is a deliciously perfect, reclusive, introspective soundtrack to these strange times.
“I’ve always said that what I really want to do with music is to give people sanctuary,” says Chris.
“Pandemic or not, the world has always felt as though it were spinning out of control to me, and so if folks have slowed down, I do see it all as an opportunity to discover vital realms which have always been there, but we’ve been too rushed and distracted to encounter.”
And time. Aah, time, which waits for no one; that which, when lost, is never found again; the powerful warrior.
“Linear time marches on, whether we are awake or asleep, whether we like it or not,” he says.
“This way of looking at time can be a trap, and a profound source of suffering. But I’ve certainly fallen victim to these illusions, and I think that it’s important to acknowledge that aspect of our humanity.”
Chris, mute to our ears too long, you’ll vouchsafe once you’ve become acquainted with the new album, is voluble in conversation about the new album, its songs and their conception, their meaning, their effect – so much more.
This new record? It needed to be made, and it called upon Chris to make that happen. “Songs,” he says, “are incredible teachers, whether they are invited or not. I had no choice but to acknowledge that these entities were building.
“I must’ve made a list, and realised that despite making no plans, plans were being made.
“There was a record – there was something to confront … these songs just came bursting through; I had to learn them, and from them, long after they appeared.”
So: why eight years? “Life has this way of getting in the way of making records,” he says. “Life has to be lived so that songs can come into existence.
“Experience brings music, and one never knows what the next sound will be. So, during the course of a life thoroughly lived, a song is born.
“The songs selected for this record are those acknowledging what it is to be caught in this linear world, consumed by darkness, trouble, sensuality, doubt, suffering and yes – the news cycle of doom and desperation.”
So: is it a record for now, for 2021, this world that’s wild at heart and so very, very weird on top? “It’s for all times,” he counters. “The greatest compliment one can give a piece of music is to acknowledge its timelessness.
“There are songs that I’ve played endlessly from when I was very young on cassette tapes which have since broken, bought again on wax, CD, digitally – songs of which I know I will never tire.
“If there are gaps between my releases, my hope is that in the end, when something released in 2021 sits beside another from 2008, that the two coexist easily, each holding its own.
“I’d like it to be impossible for a new listener to distinguish between releases in terms of (linear) time – simply that each is an accessible world unto itself, full of light.”
Let’s delay no longer. It’s time to revel in the beauty.
“It’s Not Time” is a hell of an opener for any album, a leaf-skeleton of absolute delicacy; hushed vocals, tremulous acoustics and gentle electronic swirl and texture, courtesy long-time collaborator Sonic Boom. The ways Chris’s hushed vocal plays against that slowly warming tonal sweep is quite the thing: elemental and very, very human – but ladies and gentlemen, very much floating in an inner space. You could be rapturous to this, and be safe; terribly sad to this, and the same; post-coital, and it would tend to you beautifully. And that’s an effect you’ll find throughout.
“Once a lovely element is discovered, I say let it ring out for a while – allow the listener to get acquainted with it, to enjoy it, to lean on it,” says Chris. “There is a place in music where we might suggest something eternal, a refuge – something to rely on.”
It’s over much too soon, but in its short time (and thankfully, it’s playable again and again and again – and you will) it takes you somewhere so very still and profound.
Now our placid direction of travel is established, our compasses set (I feel there’s no room for something as vulgar as a sat nav here), “California Lament” genuflects with a little steeple-handed gesture, guides us on down the path. It’s absolutely pure in its languid, drowsy atmosphere, a song blissed out on a noonday rock, warmed even more with slow tremolo shimmer on the guitars. Lyrically, there’s a lament for lost love, phrases of which tumble to the surface. There’s a feeling that those base elements, melody and breath, are just as vital to the communication here. Don’t fight to gain strict verbal meaning; Cheval Sombre is about a deeper business than that.
“I Could” is demo fragile, caught in amber at the moment of its genesis; it’s a space blues, easy, down-stroking guitar, swooshes and swirls of generative synth lifting the tune into the atmosphere.
“Time Waits for No One” – that motif again; it “waits for no one”, nor for me, Chris sings, his acoustic sculling us on down that chronological river, entwined with a simple, mantric ring of lead guitar, picking out just a few gleaming top notes. You can really tell Pete Kember is the man behind the curtain; he brings the grace, the space, the otherworldly bedding over which Chris can fly. There’s a subtle chatter, a bubbling of FX-laden guitar out back – is it a Vox Teardrop? – with reverb and tremolo and I’m guessing, listening through, a little wah-wah. The song takes flight in a backwards-masked psych lead line, always a winner; it shares similar territory, for me, with Galaxie 500’s “Another Day”, which is a trick which a song can repeat to infinity for my money. Gorgeous.
“Dreamsong” is a lush psychedelic folk instrumental, with Gillian Rivers’ and Yuiko Kamakari’s strings centre stage, bringing a Left Banke or Pearls Before Swine vibe.
“Had Enough Blues”, follows; it is, Chris details, “the closest thing I’ve ever gotten to a topical song, and then Pete did this incredible, unexpected word collage at the end of it.
“Anger is smouldering there for sure, but the song is also about stepping out of cycles of suffering, through music. Remember – the blues are redemptive.” And as with the album as a whole, redemption, absolution, may be had within. Chris lays back on the grass and looks up at the sky, while noting with simple wisdom “some people, well they always gonna bring you down.” Lie down, be counted; don’t engage with the vexatious, they sap you.
It’s a simple three-chord that cycles airily, just enough of that progression to hang your hat on; it recalls Spectrum, certainly, the Velvets, even Suicide on a chipper day; which is a meandering way of saying there’s a timeless classicism at work here. Pete’s closing sample cut-up adds an unsettling dimension.
“Been a Lover” rings with, forgive the pun, the gentle flame of drone sonics, over which Chris’s voice is double-tracked, a twangy blues figure here, there. Again there’s a looking over the shoulder, Orpheus gazing back at, and losing, Eurydice; a parting implicit and inexorable. “I’ve been a lover / For such a long time / I’ve forgotten how to look after myself,” Chris laments, a chilling, cosmic wind a-blowin and whistling through any crack it can find in that one-note organ warmth and ragged, sensitive blues.
“Curtain Grove” has a country swing, a singing sweetness, and you could have no complaints were it to remain so; “Time goes by in a curtain grove / And time it will stand still,” hushes Chris. And it swells with strings, playing on some plane of resonance and poise which simple flesh and blood rarely glimpses; when they reaffirm with a quick approach a few bars along, they’re jaw-dropping in a way say, Bill Fay’s “Cannons Plain” might be, were it covered by Broadcast. One of the songs of the year, already. Plain as day.
“Hitch a Ride” stays soothingly western; a very transporting, ecstatic, thrilled stripe of psych-country; a song with stars in its wide eyes. The guitars are layered, shimmering. It’s also a dear john of sorts, a shedding, an earthing of romantic dreams; “Never gonna hitch a ride into some sunset, girl / With you”. Come down easy, lover. The drums arrive a few bars in, the subtlest heartbeat.
We finish with a cover, and of Townes Van Zandt’s “No Place to Fall”, no less, from his 1978 album of the same name. Why did Chris select it?
“Townes Van Zandt speaks to me – his depiction of time as a train – “Time, she’s a fast old train / She’s here then she’s gone” – [and there’s that leitmotif again] is eloquent, precise.
“This album is also about travel and the many facets of love, so lyrically there are affinities. Townes was a masterful writer, able to merge concepts of time, travel and love into one, short tune.” And of course he does it justice; doesn’t if fit right in here, among such surroundings? Cheval Sombre take the raw, laconic original and bring out a gleaming purity in its sentiment and melody. He makes it his own, and it doesn’t feel like a homage or an aside, but a final piece slotting in. Some off-kilter snare beats subconsciously suggest departure for battle to these ears, and they are just the slightest touch, interjecting twice. Less can be so much more.
Well, wow. Time Waits For No One is not without its darknesses, its sadnesses, but they’re approached with the calm, supplicant grace that sits right in the heart of such feelings; and it is bloody beautiful. It isn’t, I don’t think, too much of a stretch to say it that while any song here would brighten a playlist immeasurably, it works as an interlocking whole; listen to it as such, ffs don’t chop it up and randomise it. Buy it, actually.
Once we get used to the idea that time is ineluctable, then we can get on and make sure we embrace beauty as we can. This record is very much numbered in that category. It’s maybe a record for us to get ready for the coming annual cycle, dust ourselves down, re-engage in maybe subtly different, more refined ways of being.
Can Time Waits For No One defeat time? No, but it will give you an entirely discrete space outside the depredations and rude entropy that time just loves to enact.
It’s an amulet, a perfect prescription; you can use it to ward off the world. Really, do.
Cheval Sombre’s Time Waits For No One will be released by Sonic Cathedral on digital download, CD and vinyl on February 26th; you can pre-order your copy from Sonic Cathedral direct, from Rough Trade, and from Norman Records.