What exactly do people mean by the term New Age? For most it’s a kind of ethereal, atmospheric, usually cheesy-as-hell latent hippie musical genre of the 80s and 90s built for Baby Boomers who elevated serenely from the Dead, content to hang wind chimes, buy organic and sport weird caps and odd-fitting robes from any number of developing nations. But as far as I’ve read, Rosicrucians of Yeats’ day used term and actively looked forward to one. And I’m sure Millenialists of plague-torn Europe and the philosophers of Alexandria equally parlayed the phrase. For some reason, Michael Hedges gets lumped into this category, and it baffles me why.
Aerial Boundaries is an album I became acquainted with through a weekly radio show that aired late-nite in my hometown called "Echoes by John DiLiberto." I guess Hedges fit the program format due to his association with the pioneering New Age label Windham Hill, but he really should’ve been released on Shanachie or Witchseason, or any of those British folk labels that promise some equal mixture of songcraft, musical mastery and magic.
I had Aerial Boundaries on CD when I went to college, and I clearly remember one of my very first nights in the Hinton James dorm, sitting in a crowded room with friends who would last the duration, listening to Walker (nee Brian) Lee play Hedges’s songs with great abandon, mirroring the fingerings to the best of his ability, banging away like a percussionist on his fret board. It was a great comfort to find that someone else had courageously championed this spiritual wanderer (who tragically died about that very same time) left to roam in obscurity in the unnavigable New Age horse latitudes.
But genres and labels can go to the Devil. Let’s make one fact clear: this is guitar mastery of the most accomplished extreme. Aerial Boundaries is a solo acoustic record, but at first listen, this may be hard to recognize. Hedges mysteriously states in the liner notes, “All sounds are of guitar origin,” and he recorded most of them on a 2-track master, looping himself for accompaniment and rhythm and adding percussion through banging and drumming on the guitar itself.
A few of the songs, such as Side Two’s magnificent “Spare Change,” were digitally manipulated in the studio with computers. (A controversial innovation for straight guitar players in ’84.) But every song is his creation, except for the reflective, fugue-like cover of Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush,” slowed to a prayer worn sigh even by Neil standards, that emerges as something as burnished, ancient, and remorseful as a mist-cloaked sunset viewed from a rocking chair.
Though the title, Aerial Boundaries, and the cover photo of a golden sky illuminating shadow mountains of cloud, naturally cause one to ponder elevated realms, the music is remarkably earthy, experienced from the level of the ground. It has a smell, a taste of dirt, and deep beat as persistent and true as a subterranean river.
The act of listening becomes a sensuous communion of opposites, earth and air; sense and thought; natural artistry and studio manipulation. But never once does it lose that strain of hypnotic dream, which pulses through the record from song to song, from side to side, from start to finish, like the quiet, idle thoughts of a rested soul in the deep woods, or on a misty hillside or in the empty desert, contemplating the gracious splendor of the sun.
There are records that cause you to imagine yourself in a particular place and time. And there are other albums that simply cause you to imagine. Aerial Boundaries is the sound of dream itself. Not a hope, or a wish or an earnest, unrequited desire, but a racing thought that through thinking becomes the absence of thought.
I will always equate Aerial Boundaries with autumn and with the Unforgettable Six. Those six albums I bought the day the doctors told me my father was dying. In a deeply personal way, the record invested itself that November morning with the deepest truths of time and love and loss.
When I listen to it now, start to finish as always, I of course remember that time of precarious wonder. But it’s a testament to the grace of this record, this provocative product of artistry and artifice, that I always contemplate more.
MICHAEL HEDGES AERIAL BOUNDARIES, 1984, Windham Hill