Doug Nye has been playing shows around Iowa City for almost a decade. A self-taught guitarist, singer and songwriter, he’s always had a resonant, deep baritone voice and an ear for bleak folk-tinged songwriting. His voice has become more confident even as his songwriting has turned more cryptic and playful.
The End Is Nye marks his graduation into the upper echelons of Iowa singers/songwriters. “Folkwaves” has an oldtimey flare, stringing together names of beloved record labels: “He’s Flying Nun, she’s perfect Babylon. They freed the asylum and returned home to Eden.” Cultural references are scattered in the songs like easter eggs in a video game. The same three chords repeat throughout the song, but the echoey trumpet, guitar, organ and piano vary the texture and create a meditative mood.
“Wearing Black” is a series of seemingly random images: “Wearing black on a sunny day. Watching flowers move in the wind.” The saxophone musings of Peter Balestrieri hold the song together, barely, as trumpet and banjo float in and out like strangers passing an open door. “Wearing Black” recalls both the quieter songs from the Velvet Underground and the carnival maximalism of Iowa City band Old Scratch Revival Singers.
On “Middleton Prayer,” Nye sings, “I’m on a mystery train searching for the Grail,” referencing Elvis’ rockabilly classic, “Mystery Train.” This evocative wordplay is embedded in a story with a bleak, almost gothic tone: “My skin’s getting pale, my soul’s in Hell,” followed by a reference to To Kill A Mockingbird’s Boo Radley.
Though he usually performs solo in live settings, his songs on The End Is Nye are enhanced with a wide variety of instruments, including Balestrieri’s sax, Dan DiMonte’s trumpet and Skye Carrasco’s violin. The clean distinction between the song in foreground and arrangement in background is gone; the amalgamation of horns, strings and guitar dislocate the listener, while never becoming jarring or harsh.
The End Is Nye pays homage to all Nye’s influences through the game of literally embedding their names in his songs. The cover art echoes this, placing Nye in a kind of Last Supper, surrounded by his heroes.
This is a concept album of sorts, but with concepts closer to the dream logic of a David Lynch movie than something like The Who’s Tommy. The idea of death always floats close to the surface, sometimes explicitly, as in “Bury Me Deep.” In that song, Nye recites a series of burial wishes, recalling the cowboy song, “Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie.”
But for all the wordplay, they’re still songs. Dark themes of mortality and despair rub up against paradoxically cheerful melodies. Nye’s thoughts might tend toward the bleak and hopeless when he writes, but his powerful voice and folksy melodies are gentle and inviting. He’s cheerful and mournful at the same time. It’s music for wintertime in Iowa: All is dark and cold outside, but Doug Nye builds a fire inside to keep us warm.
This article was originally published in Little Village issue 276.