Blue Lake

Sun Arcs

On his latest outing as Blue Lake, Jason Dungan's pastoral instrumentals are boundless, shimmering like dappled sun on water, says Bernie Brooks

“Work sucks, I’m going to the lake.”

Available in either t-shirt or bumper sticker format, that snappy sentiment and its variants are merchandised by marinas across the Midwest. Americans generally work too much and we generally hate our jobs. Weirdly, many, many Americans are excessively proud of both how much they work and how much they hate their jobs. They believe everyone should work as much as they do and be as miserable as they are while they do it. This is the way. Such is life.

So, as a culture we eschew things like proper holiday time, the middle class opting instead to choke the highway system every Friday and flee to The Lake in a hyper-consumptive race to relaxation. Some of us drive four or six hours each way to get a brief taste of The Lake. Thirty-six hours of desperate respite. Now, The Lake isn’t necessarily a lake. It doesn’t even have to be a place. It could be anything. A backyard garden, a BBQ. Ultimately, it’s just a state of mind simultaneously un-traumatised and necessitated by capitalism. And the feeling when you get there? It’s relief – just about as close as we get to freedom.

Jason Dungan, who records as Blue Lake, clearly knows this feeling well. A Texan living in Copenhagen, Dungan spends the duration of his latest outing, Sun Arcs, luxuriating in The Lake, charting its every contour, plumbing its every depth. Responsible for all the sounds on Sun Arcs, Dungan utilises a slew of instruments on the album: a 48-string zither, acoustic guitar, keys, a pump organ, some cello, clarinet, an alto recorder, and drums and drum programming on a 606. Still, it’s his acoustic guitar and zither that define the sound and overall vibe of Sun Arcs. His playing of both has a shimmering, drifting quality, like dappled sun on water.

Rooted in his own personal experience as an American expat in Scandinavia, a good chunk of the album was conceived in Andersabo, Sweden, at a cabin Dungan also uses as an artist residency and festival grounds, and later finished in Copenhagen. That said, to me the album’s rich pastoral nature feels deeply American. Though gentle and easy in its stride and distinct in its peculiar musical geography, Dungan’s work finds fast company with Appalachian folk traditions and the less rough-and-tumble output of contemporary folk ensembles like The Black Twig Pickers (say, for instance, their collaborative LP with Steve Gunn, Seasonal Hire) or even late career John Fahey. Some of Stuart Hyatt’s Field Works projects share a certain kinship with Dungan’s as well. Particularly Hyatt’s exploration of global Cedar forests on Cedars and its companion LP, Maples, Ash, and Oaks: Cedars Instrumentals, which, in their own way, echo Sun Arcs’ fuzzy topology, its quasi-universality paradoxically born out of the intensely particular.

For instance, when I hear ‘Green-Yellow Field’, I see mytho-poetic Michigan farm-fields dotted by saltbox and Italianate houses, flat and rolling endlessly on either side of two-lane blacktop. The sun is a certain sort of way, different from anywhere else, as is the case with the sun in all places. ‘Bloom’ is walking the beach during the once bountiful monarch butterfly migration, now helped along by humans, as stray black-and-orange wings wash up onto the shore like flower petals. ‘Rain Cycle’ is sitting on the side of a dune, nestled in the long grass, watching a mountainous storm head roll in, knowing all the while that the downpour is far enough away to walk leisurely back down the trail to the shelter of your car. These, of course, are subject to change based on any number of personal variables – my mood, whim, whatever. The compositions on Sun Arcs all become paintings, or poems, but the music is just the facilitator – the brush held by the listener to paint their own landscape, the pen to write their own verse. Anyone lucky enough to hear this record will have their own Sun Arcs, just like everyone has their own Lake.

My Lake is actually a lake. It is flanked by wetlands and marshes. It is free of things, except perhaps a long dock. There are no boats or fireworks or jet skis or drunk teenagers. There are reeds and damselflies and bullfrogs. Great blue herons and red-winged blackbirds and sandhill cranes. Mallards and wigeons and green-winged teals. There is nothing to do except sit and walk and listen. It’s hard to find my Lake these days. Such spaces are few and far between and not easily accessed. But I suspect Sun Arcs will prove a good surrogate in a pinch. As much a mindset as a record, to me it sounds boundless, a bit like freedom.

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