Dublin guitarist Cian Nugent, whilst well known for the dexterity of his fretwork, has up until now let the strings do the talking. All change then, with latest release ‘Night Fiction’. Here, Nugent’s scratched, edge-of-cigarette vocals feature on all but one track, combining with sprawling blues licks and rolling cross rhythms to create soundscapes steeped in Americana. Over the course of the album, the listener is transported from an open plains road trip (Neil Young with hints of Jefferson Airplane) to the rocking chair of a humid front porch – ‘Night Fiction’ is an album begging you to close your eyes and imagine.
As Nugent muses on the opening track, “Time drags like standing stones inside your head” – and indeed playing with tempo is a recurring theme throughout the album. This works particularly well on Lost Your Way, where deft guitar flicks are neatly ring-fenced by a tight rhythm, over laced with languid vocals. Likewise, the syncopated beat and sustained chords of First Run lend it a slightly off-kilter air, simultaneously driving forward whilst gathering the listener back into the song. Only once does this approach jar slightly – though 8 minutes long, Shadows never really gets going, and is so laid back that it threatens to topple over.
After eighteen minutes of whizzy electric solos, swirling drums and, if we’re honest, slightly flat vocals, a palate cleanser is thoughtfully provided in Lucy, a dazzle of fingerpicking and the only instrumental track on the album. Fans of Nugent’s earlier work will feel at home here, though it’s such a contrast to the rest of the album that it seems to split the whole thing in two like some kind of musical sandwich – unfamiliar bread, comforting filling.
The second half of the album glides in, taking the tempo down a notch. Nightlife, in particular, is incredibly evocative, featuring minimalist, desert-bluesy guitar and bringing the vocals to the fore. You can almost hear the crickets chirping in the inky darkness as Nugent sings, “I lie awake late at night with nothing in my head”. It works well with – and seamlessly merges into – the final track Year of the Snake, a standout of the album. Clocking in at just over 11 minutes, it slowly unfurls from a blend of sitar-like bending guitar developing into a sublime, wicked, early Rolling Stones-esque 4 beat.
The beauty of ‘Night Fiction’ lies in the skilful musicianship and complex instrumental arrangements, rather than the lyrics. It’s when guitar, organ, viola and drums layer and twist round each other that the songs seem to settle into their groove; the vocals, whilst a nice addition, are not strictly necessary. Nevertheless, the album remains an interesting development for Nugent – and one, which rewards with repeated listening.
Cian Nugent launches ‘Night Fiction’ at The Grand Social on Friday 12th February with support from Al McKay, 2016 Plec Picks Bad Sea and DJ Daniel Fox (Girl Band). Tickets are €10.