Half Shadow: a teeming windswept joy

White flowers on a road

Record: Dream Weather Its Electric Song (2019)

no more factories! no more punch-clocks! no more fancy clothes & furniture! no more waste of flesh-and-blood in the maws of civilization! no more anything but food and drink and love and contemplation of all ourselves! And no more sins and guilt, no more need for sins, no more guilt for not being guilty! Nothing but all things, frankly understood at last, rising from sexual energy outward to all human communications and situations. Nothing but the world, its light, and people in it.

Jack Kerouac, from Windblown World: The Journals of Jack Kerouac 1947-1954 (Penguin Books, 2004)

Sixty years ago, in a tiny art gallery in the Fillmore in San Francisco, a small group of intergenerational poets and students, pilgrims and seekers gathered to drink wine and sing their shared revolutionary visions and manifestos. It was brave, it was tentative, and it was new. The Beats had arrived in San Francisco. A new poetic song of the West Coast Environmental Movement had arrived. It was a public gathering for communion as much as it was an antidote to the eternal loneliness of humanity, or the isolation the creative impulse faces while working alone through long hours of crafting despair into song, the wildness of nature into poetry.

The line between audience and performer was as thin that night as the definition of their bold, new literary statement — a line that remains as thin today between a street busker and her audience, a new band playing an “in-store” show at a small record shop, or a traveling artist moving through a hidden network of house concerts to be with friends, old and new, to pass the hat to fund a new LP. Still, such activities can change everything.

Last August Half Shadow (Jesse Carsten) came to Anacortes to the apartment of Paul Benson (Ever Ending Kicks), joining the band Layperson, from Portland, to play a small house concert. The retreating summer light was already burnishing its way toward the golden tones of fall. When Half Shadow performed there was an unmistakable performance/spoken-word vibe of a contemporary mystic poet woven throughout Carsten’s songs, the same sense of tentative experimentation as has been felt age after age, the same sense of bravery and risk-taking, ignited for yet another contingent audience. Carsten’s new full-length record, “Dream Weather Its Electric Song” (Illusion Florest, 2019), wasn’t out yet, but it would soon arrive.

Now, it’s here. And for the first time since this performance artist began releasing his DIY EPs and splits on cassette, “Dream Weather Its Electric Song,” a beautifully presented vinyl LP, pressed at Portland’s premier Cascade Record Pressing, offers a unified, compelling, and fully realized vision of a poet exploring his own new, windswept landscape, blending realism with a lyrical, cosmic-language experimentation.

black and white photo of Jesse Carsten
Jesse Carsten (photo from artist’s Instagram)

I could feel the wind call
from a distance so far off
bathing rich evergreens
in waves of cloth so breathy
I spoke myself across vast spaces
I arrived dressed in anxieties shaking
to the weather and the weight
waiting in the pale dream of everyday

from the song “Body of Mist,” on “Dream Weather Its Electric Song” (Illusion Florist, 2019)

From the opening track, “Walking Underneath,” “Dream Weather Its Electric Song” blends the natural world with human senses, erasing the barriers between humanity and our cultural constructs. Carsten brings an animistic, tactile quality to his songs, woven throughout drawing from dreams to celestial visions, blending spiritual and physical modes of perception. Lyrics slip between being sung to being spoken, dissolving definitions of form and meaning. Carsten, a multi-instrumentalist, performs all the instruments, adding to this record’s intimacy.

Poetry began as a performance art form. Locking poems into books, or into physical recordings, started a process of separation between the artist and his audience. Carsten seems intent on restoring the balance between his live performance and the physical release of his music.

Seeing Half Shadow live before confronting this artist’s work as a record made these 11 songs far more accessible (and lively) than they might otherwise be without having that experience. Performance artists such as Carsten integrate their audiences into their dialogue and evolution as performers. The songs change shape through these conversations. Still, the gems of this collection: “Walking Underneath,” “Body of Mist,” “Dream Weather,” and “The Electric Song,” are all immediately accessible and define Carsten’s prophetic and personal mythology. This is a spare collection of teeming, communal songs.

Jesse Carsten of Half Shadow
Jesse Carsten (photo from artist’s Instagram)

I learned there is no dream that I could not live
blooming in the lunar garden
paths made real in moonlight
glimmers of the sparkling soil revived
and the lily peer out of an iridescent blue night

from the song “In the Lunar Garden (for Federico García Lorca),” on “Dream Weather Its Electric Song” (Illusion Florist, 2019)

Our current explosion in numbers of new artists and new music has created unlimited choice, arriving in enormous waves on every digital music platform, every hour, too much for anyone to fully comprehend. So much choice only makes it impossible to choose. The irony of so many voices surrounding us is that we all feel more alone than ever, in our vast seas of too much. It’s a rare pleasure to find an artist, to find a record, that sharpens the mind to reflect on the solitary metaphysical rather than exclusively on the mass commercial appeal of songwriting.

Half Shadow continues in a tradition of DIY performance poets thriving in their explorations through live performance — small, communal pilgrimages found in the hidden moments of convivial sharing in the intimacy of house concerts. These are the wandering poets of our times. “Dream Weather Its Electric Song” reveals the continuing development of a recording artist who is creating an extremely personal vocabulary to express his romantic, electric body of song and iridescent life experience.

The most total distinction, perhaps, is implicit in this feeling — that metaphysical men are not more important than intellectual men, only more interesting.

Jack Kerouac, from Windblown World: The Journals of Jack Kerouac 1947-1954 (Penguin Books, 2004)

photo credits (where not otherwise credited)

“Flowers” / photo by Ahmed Hasan
“Wave” / photo by Jeremy Bishop