The singing voice of John Duncan is akin to an amplified whisper, its untrained sensibility expressing an undeniable will to keep that vital pulse going. It is also a fundamental component in the reconstruction of stages of one’s past that have caused unforgettable emotions; it’s not important if those feelings were deriving from joy or sorrow. Still, the cognoscenti know that Duncan never enjoyed a veritable “tranquil” existence, his development indelibly marked by dramatic events, uncomfortable choices and abrupt changes imbued with a severe awareness of human limitations. A similar intensity permeates this music, although differently dressed.
Returning to an old song is often symptomatic of a refusal of what’s being endured in the present, a tentative retrieval of bygone sensations and scents to repel the dictatorial grip of anguish. Or, to quote the man himself, a desperate attempt to “stay alive”. By covering the songs gathered in Bitter Earth and This Bitter Earth Duncan deals with the basis of his musical learning in artistically significant fashion. He precisely draws a “line of taste”, but at the same time completely transforms the very essence of each piece tackled. The tunes are at times covered by a disfiguring mud, elsewhere caressed with frail hands, Duncan’s perceptions appearing profound and uncontaminated all the way through. We could talk about the diversity of styles, but there’s no actual “style” involved; it’s more like trying to figure out why erstwhile promises of improvement revealed themselves to be the soundtrack of an increasingly unmanageable pain.
The collaborators (among others, Oren Ambarchi, Jim O’Rourke, Tom Recchion, France Jobim, Chris Abrahams, Carl Michael Von Hausswolff) are beautifully attuned to the visions evoked by these renditions; the lone track authored by Duncan is a short cathartic gospel called “Red Sky”. Pere Ubu to Dr. John, Jefferson Airplane to Iggy Pop: the variety of illustrious references is impressive, and the versions will startle most receptive listeners. This reviewer’s favorite moments come from the piano tracks. An extraordinary “Wild Is The Wind” – made famous by Nina Simone – where Eiko Ishibashi and O’Rourke (on bass) turn grievousness into shimmering droplets of melancholy around Duncan’s trembling tone. Then “Autumn Serenade”, Abrahams’ chords emphasizing the shadows of a forlorn sunset, with the gift of a poignant Chinese suona solo by Ace Farren Ford on top of everything.