Ian McCuen Westward, to Nowhere (art by Christina Riccio)
Ian McCuen, a self-described “purveyor of sorrow,” has created a haunting musical odyssey through the broken American landscape in their most recent full-length release, Westward, to Nowhere. In addition to composing, arranging, and writing the lyrics for all eighteen of the album’s songs, McCuen also plays a multitude of different instruments here, including acoustic guitar, electric guitar, piano, theatre organ, electric piano, banjo, mandolin, six-string electric bass, percussion, drums, ebow, harmonica, and accordion. They also provide beautiful lead and backing vocals that are often hushed but urgent, like pained melodic whispers. Westward, to Nowhere traverses both time and space (taking us across the so-called heartland with songs named for Independence, MO to Deadwood, SD). This ambitious double album combines “elements of history, folklore, current events, and personal experience,” and weaves a “loose narrative that follows a drifter on a futile journey across the country.”
The excursion begins with the opening song, “Westward,” which starts with some lovely finger-picking on banjo, creating a mood that is nostalgic, reminiscent of old Western movies. McCuen’s vocals here also sound as if they’re singing to us through time, from the past: “I hear the Iron Horse whistling, I see the locomotive’s steam as it departs right on time…’Westward ho! Westward ho!’ And I know that I must go.”
There are many standout tracks along the way in Westward, to Nowhere. “Lonesome Homesteader” offers an organ introduction that falls away into the finger-picked acoustic guitar again and gentle vocals that build to octave layers on the refrain: “And what if in the end I find that I have fucked up my life? Is it really worth it to even try??” Near the song’s end, we hear a beautiful descending cello line from Lissa Reed. Percussion kicks in as the song goes on, too, a steady beat like footsteps on the road or the bounce of a horse and buggy. “The Letter” has a similar intimate desperation in its lyrics, as the singer writes letters to everyone whom they have ever loved (and everyone is gone now). Dear Sister, Dear Old Companion, Dear Old Lover, and finally, Dear Everyone I Have Ever Known. Both “Lonesome Homesteader” and “The Letter” also have evocative videos made by 542 Films.
Westward, to Nowhere jumps out of the past on certain songs to comment on the shame, violence, and structural racism of the United States, historically and right now. “The Plea” washes over you with a twinkling mandolin in the beginning, and McCuen’s vocals repeat the plea to the people of the United States (and beyond): “This is a plea for us all: stand up and join the fight! Let’s rally behind everyone who’s been robbed of their most obvious rights…You sit on the fence, while the world still turns. Can’t you hear the chanting? ‘No justice, no peace!’” Near the end of the album, “American Retreat” has a funereal feel, almost dirge-like as the instrumentation builds from a single electric piano to layers of guitar and train-like noises. The lyrics address the United States itself, and all the false mythology surrounding the American West: “Left for dead on your battlefields. Fooled by lofty speak. Of what an infinite frontier would provide. But all to be found instead. Was a trail of genocide.”
Ian McCuen (photo by Christina Riccio)
Ultimately, the trip ends at a place called Nowhere where wanderers seek forgiveness. We hear the train whistle once more, receding into the distance, the finger-picking on the acoustic guitar slowing down. The traveler has reached his end. McCuen whisper-sings at the last: “I guess this is it, my final resting place. No tomb, no tears, no flowers, just regret for my days. Silently I whisper to no one: I tried, please forgive me, I’m sorry, goodbye.”
Westward, to Nowhere immerses you in atmospheric melancholy with a mix of nostalgia and outrage at an American dream that was failed from the start. Ian McCuen’s work here is outstanding, and they’ve also assembled an impressive group of supporting musicians including Lissa Reed on cello, Sally Schaefer on violin, and Tom Stocklosa on trombone, with mastering by Alex Wieloszynski. If you’re ready to take the beautiful but heartbreaking journey of Westward, to Nowhere, it’s available on Bandcamp and all major streaming platforms now.