“I was recovering from face wounds and it was my birthday. Sometimes I like to keep it simple and murky,” reads the description to the video for Slow Ghost’s “You’ve Used Up Your Favors/Frankenstein.” Brian Szente, the man behind Slow Ghosts, accompanies the song with shots of himself wrapped in gauze and floundering in a dark room with visible scars, then intercuts scratchy scenes of Brooklyn bohemia and trains. It’s the move of a singer-songwriter using hyper vulnerability as a means for overambition. Slow Ghost’s debut album, People Climb Out of Time, doesn’t need the mumblecore visuals, the double identity (Szente’s other self is named Pinky Merton), or the auteur even, to justify the idiosyncratic quality and crocheted quirk. The music says enough and Szente is a strange bird indeed. From what can be gathered, Szente is a wallowing piano man, occupying the space between the drowsy lounge of Epic Soundtracks and the depressed micro-universe of Sparklehorse’s Mark Linkous. None of it, though, is linear. Most of People Climb Out of Time is in fragments, an electro-acoustic cut and paste of lonely ivory notes falling down the well and thrifty ambient tones or taped samples reversed then tossed into the ether.
As sparse as Slow Ghost’s debut is, it feels pretty claustrophobic, schizophrenic even. Whether it’s the skittered beats that outline “Tom” or the multiple voices that inhabit “Coco Reisho,” Szente invites us into his head, no matter how cluttered or confused. Those collapses in comfort, though, are met with tranquil folk songs, with layers of straying strings indebted to Fahey and Bull. “Chimes in Your Eyes” is one of those moments, both calming and paranoid, fluid and abstract, and makes one wonder why Szente didn’t center the album on this meditative style because he pulls it off quite well. Still, more than songs, People Climb Out of Time is focused on short sonnets of sound art to back Szente’s love letters to loss and loneliness. That in itself makes it necessary to ingest the record as a whole; this is something that can’t be broken up into singles, and one has to experience every step to truly capture the essence of Szente’s compelling work. The nearly a cappella “Gas Masks” is an ode to a romantic apocalypse, with Szente using his last few breaths to warn the others while one distant synth moves in and out of frame like an impending disaster. It wouldn’t be as affecting had you not played side one first. Then there’s “Pink Falcons on Mosaic Mountain,” Szente’s glitch-hop finale of all the sounds heard before swelling into a blinding crescendo, complete with scratches and ticks of an unkempt piece of vinyl. I suppose that’s the beauty of Slow Ghost. It’s the slow reveal of treasure buried for ages. People Climb Out of Time can be gleaned as a document crafted in a bedroom somewhere in Brooklyn that takes just as much work to decipher as it does to describe. It’s certainly not for everyone, especially those who first encounter Szente via his pretentious and meaningless videos. But as lowly and impenetrable as it appears at first, Slow Ghost’s inside-out approach to folk makes the digging worthwhile.
Kevin J. Elliott