Chuck Johnson’s latest album Balsams was the first music I heard after my son was born. In its own low-key way, it was the perfect introduction to the world for a newborn baby. This is some of the most sumptuous, warmly crafted, undeniably human ambient music I’ve heard in years.
Johnson crafts his utterly time- and place-less music with steel pedal guitar, which gives the cloudlike tunes a distinctly American, pastoral vibe. It also grants the gauzy sounds a sense of tangibility that other, similarly dreamlike ambient music lacks. Instead of ethereal synth pads drifting into oblivion, we’ve got the tactile pull of guitar strings, tethering us to the world from which they came.
Every element of this music casts a resonance outside its own time, drifting and blurring the space between notes, between beginnings and endings, and between anxious little thoughts and the broad feeling of existential acceptance. In this sense, it’s an instant shortcut to deeply meditative states without ever tipping into pure abstraction. This is a quality found in many of my favorite albums, ambient or not, so it immediately drew me in.
I thrive on the liminal space between concrete action and formless mind flight. It’s where I find comfort and optimism, mining it for fuel in my day-to-day life. Balsams, beyond its surface level existence as gorgeous slow-motion music, acts as a shortcut to those precious depths.
As I sat in a darkened hospital room last week next to my sleeping fiancee, bracing for the moment our son would arrive, I pressed play on my phone and fell headfirst into the wistful somnambulance of this album. Tension eased and my thoughts drifted toward the distant future, years onward when my son was nearly a man. I watched him grow and change, speak about his own beliefs, move on from my influence and protection, and journey past the point where my own time ended. I was filled with a sense of warm acquiescence, confident that things were unfolding as they were always going to, and that this was my one and only path.
When my son was born later that night, I sat alone in stunned silence for a while. His mother was knocked out from anesthesia, so I held him for a quiet hour and embraced the world-altering moment for all that it was. Everything was different now, and there was really nothing to fear. I helped usher this new life into the world, and my new mission was to make sure that it had every chance to thrive.
The next morning, as the sun rose through the hospital windows, over rooftop puddles and pigeon formations, I pressed play on my phone again. I wanted my son to hear the sounds that cocooned my final few hours before his arrival. I wanted him to feel something gentle and dreamlike, confidently abstract, that fertile ground for blossoming thoughts. There was nothing at that moment I’d rather share with him.
Similarly, I’m here to share the music with my readers. Here’s the video for the second track on the album, Riga Black.
Sometimes I feel like comparison can do as much work as description when it comes to enigmatic music. With that aim, I feel compelled to mention the celestial drift of Harold Budd, a similarly gauzy sound crafted from the outer edges of guitar music. I’m also thinking of Brian Eno’s Apollo, a set of now-iconic ambient tunes driven by collaborator Daniel Lanois’ familiar steel pedal guitar. Songs like An Ending (Ascension) have become deeply embedded in the fabric of my own life, a fact that probably helped me become instantly enamored with Chuck Johnson’s sound. As a final comparison, I should say that the album feels like the waking morning after The Tired Sounds of Stars of the Lid, red-tinged sun beams warming the ground as deep dreams give way to stretching, hazy memories, hot coffee, and cool breezes.
There’s nothing I can say here that will compare to a single listen to this music, so click play above and try it out yourself. So much has changed in my life over the past few months, crescendoing with the birth of my son last week, but music remains the most important of intangibles. I’ll always be urging everyone to listen closer, to experience deeper. It’s where I find myself and my future, and I hope everyone can do the same.
You can buy the album from Chuck Johnson’s website with a simple Paypal transaction.