Sometimes it is possible to honor an artist’s ambition even if you cannot completely enjoy the results. Some might find that the case with Thomas Nordlund’s first solo album, Divide Avenue. Nordlund is a Twin Cities based musician and songwriter with a growing CV serving as guitarist for artists like Sarah Morris and the Jana Nyberg Group. Nordlund’s chops are beyond question. He has studied with many respected teachers and holds a Bachelor’s in guitar performance and a Certificate in Jazz Studies. The eight songs on his debut are the product of one year’s work where the guitarist challenged himself to write a new song every week. The source inspiration for the album comes from his travels across the rugged and expansive landscapes of the Baja, Mexico area and that atmosphere comes through on every song. This is an artist clearly possessed by his own vision and convictions, but you can’t consciously set out to create a masterpiece and expect to succeed. Or can you?
The entire idea of an instrumental album like Divide Avenue is frankly, in this day and age, rather ambitious to begin with. The temerity of someone releasing guitar instrumentals into this culture! I joke, of course, but these are songs that demand we engage our own imaginations. The first track and title song grabbed me immediately. Nordlund’s baritone guitar gives every cut an unusual voice, familiar yet not, and its evocative tone doubles down on its exotic flavor. The album’s second song, “Whiskey Rumination”, moves listeners back to something a little more typical, a mid-tempo south of the border guitar workout with a light jazz bounce. “Whispering Son” is more conventional than it sounds. In essence, this is an idiosyncratic rock track that, despite its sound, obeys the genre’s fundamentals. There’s a great stepping up in this song. It starts with a relatively bare frame and soon fills it in with increasing instrumental intensity. “Ensenada Nights” revisits the southern feel present in “Whiskey Rumination”, but not as deeply and with a much lighter touch. Nordlund’s collaborators stand out on every track and Lars-Erik Larson turns in another fantastic drumming performance here worthy of mention.
Perhaps the subtlest song on the album is its fifth song, “Rilke in the Rain”. It’s really nothing at all like anything that comes before it and shows the band in a far more meditative mood musically. Some might complain that it goes nowhere or never really resolves itself in a satisfactory way, but they might be missing the point. Nordlund’s ability to challenge the listener remains undimmed on “Wandering Daughter”, a track marrying propulsive rock drums with quicksilver brass lines, tasteful guitar work, and deep in a pocket bass runs. It’s the album’s closest thing to a full on virtuoso performance. “Iron John” hinges on a shift from its guitar heavy first section into a lighter second half, but it seems like two half-finished song ideas brought uneasily together. The last song, “Sagatagan”, has the familiar epic feel of earlier songs, but there’s an element of chaos and things unsettled in the music that winds down in a slow, lyrical coda. If Thomas Nordlund’s Divide Avenue is a self-conscious attempt at music immortality, he didn’t quite make it. But he tried and, by trying, put himself and his art on the line in often thrilling, bracing fashion.