Sluice: Radial Gate

Sometimes it seems like Justin Morris wishes he were an eagle. Planes and birds of prey soar above Radial Gate, the Durham, North Carolina folk musician’s second album as Sluice. From the ground, Morris sings of dirt paths sooted with millworkers’ boots and creeks deep enough to drown in. “I am a cartoon Callahan,” he sings on “Fourth of July,” describing a beer-soaked riverside setting like that of Smog’s “Drinking at the Dam.” Though the premise of Radial Gate might threaten Bill Callahan pastiche, Morris is more like Callahan’s tenderhearted, New Sincerist cousin. He’s a Callahan without the temperance of a wise and wizened disposition, without the sourness; a Callahan who would sing about watching his friends’ girlfriends get ready for a party and conclude, “It’s a precious thing,” as Morris does on the album’s closer.

Morris comes by this eagle-eyed sense of wonder not out of naivety, but as a preservationist. He inscribes serene and untroubled memories into the bucolic details of Durham’s forests, skies, and bodies of water, before gently gesturing toward industrial violence. “That damn chainsaw’s still trying to rip us out,” he sings with a soft lilt on “Mill.” Radial Gate isn’t as saccharinely single-noted as Morris’ honeyed voice and major-key Appalachian guitar melodies suggest. Each song is flooded with ambiguity. Natural beauty is underpinned by a cruel dramatic irony; Morris acquaints you with each tree, knowing that they—alongside the unsullied memories of his childhood—will be chainsawed down.

There’s a constant feeling of spontaneity in Morris’ voice, which sounds like the meeting point between Peter Broderick’s cajoling timbre and Jason Molina’s cool unnerve. He occupies multiple states and time frames at once; he is both an eagle and a dormouse on the ground, simultaneously 9 and 25. Sometimes the switch is as fast as a jump cut. “What’s that, is that a bald eagle? No, that’s a crow,” he sings between soft peals of pedal steel on “Fourth of July.” With pacing that is often surprising, listening to Radial Gate feels like watching a watercolorist paint a landscape in real time. “And it feels…it feels,” Morris sings with masterfully performed reluctance on “Centurion.”

Contrary to the project’s namesakes—which suggest a systematic control of (water)flow—the songs on Radial Gate leak out like a small flood, unfurling without a hook or central focus. At times Morris’ songwriting can feel piecemeal, as when he hurries between scenes of people, weddings, and travel on “New Leicester” (with its aforementioned “beautiful girlfriends” tableau). Morris is a curious, sometimes revelatory songwriter, but his revelations need more refinement to really land. On “Acts 9:3” he takes “a surprise shit” in the woods and is “struck by the beauty and the comedy of attempting to exist,” an attempt at cosmic pithiness that reads more like AI-generated Neutral Milk Hotel. Still, Radial Gate feels like a re-education in sincerity, a lesson in the perception of beauty. Justin Morris is no Bill Callahan, but that’s something to be thankful for. A pair of open eyes above a simple open heart is also capable of opening the floodgates.