The Dead Tongues: Transmigration Blues


[Psychic Hotline; June 26]

To transmigrate is to be reborn. As the singer-songwriter Ryan Gustafson was wrapping up Transmigration Blues last summer, he fell into a brief depressive slump that mirrored the album’s themes. Completing the project had left a hole in him. Rebirth can’t happen without a little death or grief. 

Transmigration Blues is Gustafson’s fourth album as The Dead Tongues, and the first he’s made since departing from the Triangle for a century-old cabin nestled in Western North Carolina. Still, he has deep roots in the Piedmont, and the album features an illustrious host of local collaborators, including Molly Sarlé, Amelia Meath, Alexandra Sauser-Monnig, Josh Moore, and Alex Bingham, among others. 

In previous lives, Gustafson has been a hired hand, touring with the likes of Hiss Golden Messenger and Phil Cook. Like them, he knows how to parlay searching lyricism into revelatory Americana. And Transmigration Blues does that, to some degree, with sun-scorched hymns that mark the end of a season of life and rhythms that fall somewhere between ruminative and rollicking. 

Capacious as Gustafson’s ear for melody is (the instrumentation on “Song Called Void” and “Road to Heaven” is particularly beautiful), this is not an album that translates particularly well to the present moment. The concept of transmigration is conceptualized through songs about the regrets and romances of the open road, a theme that runs the risk of being unimaginative at best, self-reflexive at worst. Gustafson is good at songs that mourn the end of things, but right now what’s most compelling is the creative birth that comes next.

Contact deputy arts and culture editor Sarah Edwards at or follow her on Twitter

Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.