John Vanderslice

Time Travel Is Lonely (Barsuk Records)

On John Vanderslice's second LP, printed lyrics have been replaced with a series of handwritten letters from Jesse, our strange protagonist who is trapped in Antarctica, lost without GPS coordinates or Internet access. After a few listens, the fact becomes clear that each of these lonely and reflective missives corresponds to a song on the album, and in turn each brief song holds its own contemplative redemption. So yeah, it's a clever pop record but free from that annoying, self-aware irony (no, really).

Recorded at Tiny Telephone, Vanderslice's own San Francisco-based recording studio, Time Travel shows the artist's deft production skills, both technically and conceptually, and makes the most of his material, giving it an off-the-cuff, organic character. While the selection of instruments used to flesh out these songs is rather traditional, Vanderslice's spacious arrangements are quirky and engaging; drums often filter in and out of the mix at whim, usually abandoned altogether midsong. Vintage keyboards buzz and hiccup, while harpsichords dominate classically based interludes. With an acidic, in-your-face voice at times rivaling that of Neutral Milk Hotel's Jeff Magnum in intensity and fervent earnestness, Vanderslice delivers a wealth of ornate and cryptic lyrics while still maintaining an emotional rawness. He strives for a classical sense of romanticism, borrowing unashamedly from the likes of William Blake and J.S. Bach for material. He means it, man. And I, for one, buy it.

The album's opener, "You Were My Fiji," demonstrates all of these elements: a strained vocal rant about an ex who's a "stripper now in New Orleans" set against simple, interlocking acoustic guitar lines, a Moog synthesizer, and some handclaps. When the Moog gets to swelling and Vanderslice strains out, "Those hours with you /They only expand to you/You were my Fiji/Oh believe me/But I fell in love with somebody else's sand/Somebody else's dry land," all the seemingly off-kilter bits fall into place and the soaring begins -- and then the song abruptly ends. "Keep the Dream Alive" also stands out like a horn-happy carnival ride taken straight from the Elephant 6 school of revelry. But it's the modernizing of the Robert Lowell poem "My Old Flame" that acts as the album's physical and emotional centerpiece. Lamenting a visit to the home where he once lived with his ex-wife, our narrator is stunned by how much the place has changed: "With our videos and records/Our old house/Oh everything's changed/Bleached out and aired/ IKEA'ed and swept bare/Poor ghost of love." With religious intensity he drops the laments at the end, breaking the song down to a steel drum-mellotron melody that slowly fades away. These kind of intense reflections comprise the bulk of Time Travel Is Lonely,making it hard to resist for those who swoon easily.

Like the arctic tundra where Jesse is trapped, the album features a lot of cold separation and time spent alone, all buffered with fragments of hope and the knowledge that climates, both geographic and emotional, change over long spans of time.

 
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