The elevator-pitch-size story of Wand (and their lead singer Cory Hanson) has been a heavy garage rock band gradually mellowing out into chill psych rock. Time is revealing this to have only been the first act of a constant creative transition. Pale Horse Rider, Cory Hanson’s second solo album released under his own name, comes five years after the dominating string arrangements of his first, The Unborn Capitalist from Limbo, and two years after the hour-plus stylistically-sprawling ambition of Wand’s Laughing Matter, yet follows a different path hinted by either of those two albums, landing in an unexpected home of country-folk. There are signs of the sonic experimenter at work here, from the occasional instrumental interlude to the guitar solos spilling into wounded cacophony, but without interrupting the overall impression of a confidently straightforward songwriting album.
To get something out of the way that new listeners will inevitably notice: Hanson’s voice really, really sounds like an American Thom Yorke. Not a spitting image, but the resemblance on his (hushed, emotional) falsetto is striking. This is not a bad thing because it is a very good voice, and Pale Horse Rider’s relaxed nearly-live accompaniment give him the most room he’s had yet to showcase his powerful and earnest delivery.
The chance to exhibit his songwriting chops is not squandered either. Pale Horse Rider’s mood is aptly captured in its title track, which could deceptively pass as its most happy, rousing singalong if you missed the apocalyptic evocation of the chorus “Sooner or later the devil will come / And the rider’s gonna cut him down with everyone.” The album is filled with a Robert Hunter-esque litany of horseback riders, gambling, booze, codeine, and cryptic misfortune, marked by pinpricks of vivid imagery both serene and apocalyptic, macabre and transcendent—a world filled with ghosts, mirrors, empty roads and empty towns, “moonlight through the bullets in his back” followed with “the sunrise coming through the trees / orange spray paint dripping on the leaves.”
The despair of the lyric sheet is single-handedly buoyed by the music, the built-in camaraderie of country accompaniment (complete with sighing pedal steel guitar, a cohesive glue for the album). Even the climax of angry guitar soloing on “Another Story from the Center of the Earth” sits on top a peaceful bed of piano and gentle drumming—the album is preoccupied with darkness, but it’s never out to overwhelm.
In more cynical hands the disparity between the lyrical darkness and musical comfort (or in the case of the final track, “Pigs”, utter catharsis) could come off as ironic, but that’s not the case here. Instead of wry irony or wallowing in hopeless abandon, Pale Horse Rider achieves something more like a fellow soul joining in on watching a fire in the distance.