When you hear the words “American landscapes,” maybe you imagine your favorite Ansel Adams photograph or that time you surveyed the Rocky Mountains or Monument Valley. Do you turn away, ashamed to show your emotion? Don’t worry about dabbing your eyes while listening to American Landscapes; you can always blame it on the teargas.
Jozef Van Wissem (a Dutch lute player who mostly lives in Poland these days) and Jim Jarmusch (a filmmaker who also makes a big sound on electric guitar) have been collaborators for more than a decade. American Landscapes is their fifth duo recording, and it distills their signature sound to bitter dregs and foundational essences. Two of its tracks are named after cities in Jarmusch’s home state of Ohio. “Cleveland” and “Akron” are constructed from layer upon layer of feedback, some of it sharp and buzzing, the rest as murky as your subwoofer sounded after torrential rains flooded your basement. Melodies try to pull themselves out of the slow-turning maelstrom, but there’s no one to lend a hand, so instead listeners may find themselves plunging ears-first into the sound.
The side-long title track is much more spacious. The piece was conceived as accompaniment to a dance performance enacted against a backdrop of Robert Longo’s photographs, such as the one on the cover, which presents an American landscape that became only too familiar in 2020. Van Wissem plays a series of palindromic themes that advance and retreat, denying the listener release. Jarmusch alternates between acoustic guitars, which offer gentle counterpoint to the lute’s progress, and peals of funeral feedback. The music’s very structure denies release. It’s not trying to make you feel better, but sadly pointing you back to the way things keep tending to be.