The Dead Tongues
When Ryan Gustafson finished recording Transmigration Blues, his fourth and best album under the nameThe Dead Tongues, in the summer of 2019, he slumped into a month-long haze of depression. For two decades, Gustafson—a preternaturally sensitive soul, interested in the mystic but grounded by his love of quiet woods and open deserts—had made many albums with various bands and under assorted guises. This one however, had left him wounded, momentarily empty. He couldn’t write songs, couldn’t concentrate, couldn’t summon any enthusiasm for tapping into his emotions. Even the shows he played meant going through the motions. “The deeper wells of my being had run dry,” he remembers of how he felt when he returned to his mountain cabin, deep in a North Carolina holler. “There was just this big, open space.”
From its first notes, when organ and piano peal warmly beneath Gustafson’s strummed guitar, Transmigration Blues summons the sounds of friends supporting one of their own as he works through the annals of existence. Laced with sharp electric leads and a kaleidoscope of harmonies and hand drums, opener “Peaceful Ambassador” celebrates the lows, the highs, and the sense of salvation that singing about both can supply.He taps a surfeit of natural beauty for “Equinox Receiver” — the Badlands and the East River, green forests and golden fields—to show how we’re all suspended somewhere between despair and fulfillment, just trying to do our best with what we have. As his small studio choir joins him, you can imagine an endless audience, joining in this perfect ode to survival.
The album’s epic centerpiece is “Déjà Vu,” a song about trying to find the actual space and air to function with any kind of contentment in these increasingly harried times. It’s a gorgeous, candid confession about the odds we all face just to be happy. Gustafson and the band stretch out for seven minutes, returning for a reprise as if to remind us we’re all in this primitive quest together. “The sky is crowded/with a million lights just trying to get through adarkness/and find a way through,” Gustafson sings at the start of the second verse, his voice quiet from the exhaustion of just being. In the chorus, everyone sings together, lifting one another toward those lights.
The world has changed drastically since Gustafson wrote and recorded these songs — entropy, you may say, has found the freeway. In this stark moment of uncertainty, The Dead Tongues’ hymns to understanding your past and finding renewal in the changing seasons are more vital than Gustafson might have ever imagined. They feel like a homecoming for yourself, a farewell for all the guilt you’ve stockpiled. At a time when admitting that most of us are doing the very best we can seems revolutionary, Transmigration Blues is a welcome statement of radical acceptance.