It’s probably best that Joel RL Phelps albums come few and far between. They are generally unwieldy, sobering, depressing pieces of work. They take a while to ingest. A bitter pill? Perhaps that’s why we are talking about his latest, Gala (12XU), in the dread of winter, though it was released (strategically enough) at the dawn of autumn. Timing is everything as this album sticks to your bones. Three months after release, it’s still sticking.
Anyone who can relate to the melancholy of early Silkworm should be at ease by what Phelps has become in his twilight years. He took all the emotional baggage of (arguably) Silkworm’s best records with him. Now, though, there are simply few bones left in his work. What bones are there are shaved to slivers. Dry, sparse, stinging—he’s still a sullen soul, but the spacious songs on Gala extinguish any curmudgeonly grudges extant in post-middle-age. “So You’ve Decided” is the first of a handful of tracks that focus primarily on Phelps’ search for salvation, using only an acoustic guitar and his distinctive voice to command attention. With those two elements alone, he makes a mockery of most everything done by Will Oldham by stripping his folk of any hokum. With the Downer Trio in tow, he rages cathartically, especially on the closing triumph, “Thank You and Goodnight,” building scrap heaps of guitars and acerbic wit like a makeshift Crazy Horse borne of ’90s grunge aesthetes.
Gala is certainly not for the faint of heart. There’s nothing overly chirpy, showy, or innovative, just enough emotional heft to allow his diehard base of fans an album to ruminate on for years. Those who like to wallow along probably find that “Exiting the Garden” hits the hardest and the deepest. It’s a song that feels like it runs twice its actual length. That’s no slight; it speaks to Phelps ability to make his music seem suspended in time. “Art thou creator? Art thou awake?” Phelps sings. There’s a story being told, but it’s also a direct question to the listener. Is your blood still pumping or have you given up? With Gala, Phelps answer is quite clear.