Under the Nurse With Wound name, Stephen Stapleton has spent the better part of the past three decades being elusive. In a sense, he’s been hiding in plain sight the whole time. He lives in rural seclusion and avoids publicity, but he’s an inveterate collaborator (most notably with Current 93 and Stereolab) and regularly releases albums — it’s just that these albums create distinct, hermeneutic sound-worlds that have more to do with his esoteric cultural obsessions — which run the gamut from dada to David Lynch, from Austin Osman Spare to Snoop Dogg — than traditional notions of music.
This disregard for musicality means that a benchmark album like 1982’s Homotopy to Marie, which was Stapleton’s first solo effort as Nurse with Wound (the debut Nurse with Wound album, 1979’s Chance Meeting on a Dissecting Table, was the work of a full band), doubles as either cinema or a really potent Halloween sound-effects tape. Huffin’ Rag Blues incorporates more familiar musical trappings — including instruments (played live, even), rhythm, and singing — than almost any other Nurse with Wound release to date. Even with this surface discontinuity, however, the album’s main preoccupation is, as ever, creating environments for lucid dreaming rather than creating music qua music.
The album opens with “Willy the Weeper,” short monologue that ranks as the most uncomplicatedly corny thing in the Nurse with Wound discography. It’s not worth lingering over here except to point out that it suggests a possible analogy with Twin Peaks: The same way that series’ first season established a pitch-perfect marriage of the familiar (soap opera dynamics) and the uncanny (the woods, for one), only to drift through a patience-testing second season before concluding with the fascinating disaster of Fire Walk with Me, Nurse with Wound has made a left turn here toward art that’s more facile and still hard to dismiss. A track like “Black Teeth,” for example, with its growlin’, free-associatin’ vocals courtesy of irr. app. (ext.)’s Matt Waldron, can feel like something genuinely new for the group (while reminiscent of certain Sun City Girls tracks) and a little like pandering to an audience I’m not sure exists.
Which might be the point, and one of the only places Stapleton can go to continue confounding expectations. There’s nothing here that suggests diminished possibilities — Stapleton’s not against the wall, and the album’s as spacious as any other Nurse with Wound release. Although Stapleton’s studio manipulations are more understated here, they give the more loungey numbers (like the mid-album highlights “Thrill of Romance…?” and “Livin’ with the Night”) a sense of subtle but pervasive off-centeredness as percussion pans between speakers.
Even though Huffin’ Rag Blues is less of an immersive experience than previous Nurse with Wound albums, it’s hard to see it as anything other than a definitive statement. It’s simply the latest in a long, discontinuous history.