While listening to “Moon Casale” (Moonrise Records, 2013), the eponymously titled solo record by recording artist Moon Casale (also known as Keith Zarriello of The Shivers), a distant phrase came to mind, something I read years ago in City of God by St. Augustine (really, I read this sort of thing). “There are wolves within…”
Authentic spirituality in contemporary music is a difficult space to explore in these polarized times when personal faith (or at least the need to publicly profess one’s faith) often overpowers judgment, pushing compositions into preachy spaces at best, maudlin spaces at worst. Such traps lead to easy clichés instead of the more difficult path of creating revealing, universal compositions. The need to profess or confess all too often overpowers the aesthetic. The impulse is easy to understand: the need to get clean for the first time, or to get back to something lost and mourned. But it’s the subtle paths in art that have the greatest connecting power. Bill Fay is a modern master of this space, with his authentic spirituality and mysticism woven into a unique appraisal of life in modern times. Now I can add another artist to this small, masterful group: Moon Casale.
The wolves can be heard on this record, in a vaguely literal sense on tracks “Howlin’ at the Moon” and “New Jerusalem,” and metaphorically in the slow, sad narratives “Long Cold Lonely Winter” and “Stayin’ Alive.” Two powerful presences emerge: Casale’s voice and his confident, sad guitar style.
The compositions are lean and tight. He’s a proven journeyman songwriter and recording artist who creates atmospheric records rich in storytelling and low-fi burn. These same two unifying forces are what have made his band The Shivers such a powerful and expressive band over their 10-year history. Unlike The Shivers output, however, this is a harder record to listen to. It’s deeply personal, and you’ll feel it.
The biographical note about Casale on Bandcamp describes a man struggling with and overcoming addiction, and certainly some of these songs bear out a dark journey. But this isn’t a record filled with self-hate. Instead, it seems to be a portrait of one man using raw honesty in his songwriting to explore both beauty and ugliness. Casale doesn’t emerge a cleansed man. Instead, he lays out his darker thought processes, such as on the track “I Don’t Know,” with raw confession and heartache, human failure and even cruelty, all side by side. And yet, there is plenty of beauty, too, beginning with the two opening tracks, “You Couldn’t Have Come at a Better Time,” and “ABQ.”
Maybe it’s the background thought about addiction and the big city (Casale lives in New York, having migrated from New Mexico) that makes this record such a naked exploration of light and dark. Big cities are places of both hope and isolation, revealing and destructive in their scale, while St. Augustine reveals that the City of God is found within ourselves. Shock and collapse continue to force people to rationalize why bad things happen to them, especially when they’ve felt safe. It’s an ancient human cycle, and art has often been a vehicle that helps some make sense of chaos. Addiction is its own kind of violence, tearing down the inner sense of innocence and place, replacing it with self-hate, hopelessness, and oblivion. Casale’s journey is present in every song on this record, his lowest points as well as his emerging sense of hope.
Along with this LP, Casale has released a single on Bandcamp called “Beauty #2.” It’s a song that feels like something written by a man who has come through darkness to the brighter end of the tunnel. It’s a quiet, resigned piece, and it feels like the first in what needs to be more records. “Moon Casale” writes the chapter on the breaking. It’s starting point, not a destination. I think the best art reveals the journey of how an artist explores and explains crisis, explains his wolves within. “Moon Casale” isn’t a happy record, but it’s deeply engaging and eloquently lyrical. Each of the 11 songs presents questions about failure and longing and need. Listen to it. Feel it. And know that this record is just the beginning of a much bigger story.