If Nina Nastasia and Jim White made an album that acted as an intimate conversation between their audience and themselves, then Ray Raposa’s Castanets project cuts out the listener entirely. Across five LPs, Raposa’s moved from gothic, swampy folk to lofty sweetness to desolate, heat-soaked desert music. It’s all good in its own way, and each album is united by the fact that the actual songs — and by songs I mean coherent pieces with basic structure and lyrics — are spread out across drifts of noise and ambience.
I’m not sure if it’s the best starting point — that honor would probably go 2004’s Cathedral — but I always come back to 2008’s City of Refuge, which Raposa recorded in a shitty motel in Nevada. It’s the loneliness of the record that gets me.
After a little meandering guitar and the funeral march of “The Destroyer,” which sounds as close to a heat wave as music can sound, Raposa’s vocals come in on “Prettiest Chain” four tracks into the album. Even then, it’s not until a few more songs that we hit the meat of City of Refuge with “Glory B,” which rests uneasily between ominous and pretty: “Threw my shirt out the window, on to the road/the big night sky looked flit to explode/so pull this car over kid, let’s see what you can do/cause something bad will happen, something always does burn…” and then later, his voice, already a dead-eyed whinge cracks even more: “I wore myself out, just wanting you,” the guitar trickles upward, the song ends.
It’s not that every Castanets album is about love or loss or lost love, it’s just that Raposa has a way of stretching the loneliness that can come with those emotions across an entire album. It’s what Will Oldham does so well. And Jason Molina. and Chan Marshall. Raposa came after they’d already developed a substantial following and is much more of a cult figure, possibly because, where those artists touched on depression and let it float throughout their catalog without ever dwelling too much, Raposa makes it his entire world. You have to be in a pretty specific mood to feel like hearing a guy tell you that it’s “okay to die,” as Raposa does on “Shadow Valley.”
This is as close to advice as Raposa ever really gets. On Cathedral’s “Cathedral 2 (Your Feet On The Floor Sounding Like The Rain)” he’s barely able to get the words “It’s alright to want more than this” out, but he does.
It’s alright to want more than what you have. It’s okay to die. These are ideas that we inherently understand because they’re part of being human. We understand them because we don’t have a choice.
There’s this underlying feeling on City of Refuge, between the electronic cicada chirps and desolate twang, that Raposa explores, but sort of just lets hang in the atmosphere around these songs: it’s a comfort in loneliness, or rather, comfort in allowing himself to be comfortable with the idea of loneliness.
Raposa’s lived in San Diego and Portland and New York and probably some other places, too. He’s got friends and family and history. He’s got a record label and a musical career, but for a little while, he let that all go and hid out in the Nevada desert, where I’ve never been, but don’t imagine to be the most positive place to hang out. He did it because he wanted to. Maybe he needed to. To make something great, sometimes it’s worth just giving up.