When Jozef Van Wissem plays the lute, he doesn't sit. Instead, the New York-based Dutchman stands, looming over his low-hanging instrument like the "figure in black" character in "Black Sabbath" — that'd be the song "Black Sabbath," from the album Black Sabbath, by Black Sabbath — that scares the living bejeezus out of everyone. No wonder: Van Wissem's compositions are just as heavy and mystic and set in hypnotic darkness, both on his own and with musicians like James Blackshaw, Smegma, Heiji Kaino and filmmaker Jim Jarmusch.
For what seems like his 20th album in the last decade, Nihil Obstat, Van Wissem plays a one-of-a-kind black lute. Even the album title, Latin for "nothing stands in the way" and a process for approving Catholic texts, is ominous in tone. How much more black could this album be? But the answer is complicated by "Where You Lived and What You Lived For," the most deceptively happy-sounding track of Jozef Van Wissem's insanely prolific career.
During its 11-minute running time, Van Wissem wavers from major to minor keys again and again, but it's the lilting, Fairport Convention-like main theme that catches listeners off guard. You can almost see children running around the maypole, full of promise and joy, until Van Wissem drags the melody over a bed of worms. The lilting theme returns, but it's tainted little by little each time. It's perfectly sadistic and sinister, the kind of instrumental storytelling that will translate well to his score of Jim Jarmusch's forthcoming vampire film, Only Lovers Left Alive.