When presented with a collection of songs that’s explicitly billed as mood music, the correct question is: what sort of mood? For Lovers, a double-length passion project from Wilco guitarist Nels Cline, the answer is an intimate and even romantic one, which isn’t quite the same thing as saying that Lovers is a set of babymaking jams. Low-key, mellow, and immersive in both its texture and its scope, Lovers is music that welcomes intimacy and all its stormy weather. It understands solitude as the flip side to union. It celebrates love and is haunted by it. This is not music for a fling, but for a lifelong entanglement.
Cline has been perfecting the selection and sequence of these eighteen songs for decades now, and the final iteration is culled from jazz standards, soundtrack obscurities, and Sonic Youth’s discography, as well as five original compositions. Recorded with a twenty-three-piece orchestra—the lamps burning low, the mood both pensive and playful—Lovers is awash with history and allusion. It resembles the arrangements of Gil Evans circa Sketches of Spain or Out of the Cool in how it renders folk forms ornate while maintaining their simplicity; like Miles Davis’s In a Silent Way, it carries the barest sketches into the realm of mystery and mysticism. Cline also takes cues from Jim Hall, whose famous excursions with Bill Evans on Undercurrent are a revealing touchstone: listen to how ably the guitarist switches from chilled ambiance to surprising swing without ever breaking the mood.
The record unfolds gently and never rises above a whisper, yet there’s too much going on here for it to be written off as a cocktail party soundtrack. Cline trades lines with the orchestra on “Beautiful Love,” which feels like a ballet of whimsy and romance. He rides a flinty, film-noir groove for eight minutes on “Lady Gabor,” and his take on “Snare, Girl” is awash in the rumble of drums and alien sound effects. Ragged coronet brings smeared-lipstick romance to “Glad to Be Unhappy” and “Why Was I Born?” Dive into this oceanic record at any point and you’ll find yourself carried away.
The whole thing plays out like a movie—a romance, but not a frivolous one. These songs trace the contours of union between two souls easing into one another over time—and all the pain and glory that follows.