(Flemish Eye/Sub Pop; 2014)
By Robin Smith | 25 August 2014
I might be alone in my belief that Chad VanGaalen has the most beautiful voice ever. Above all things, it is peripheral—it shivers at the idea of perfect pitch and always sounds resolute on tears. On Shrink Dust it is aggressively low-key, VanGaalen delivering his most moving, strangely forceful vocals since “Willow Tree,” a song which I would wager cannot be beaten for gorgeous melancholy. This record comes close—the way he sustains and carries himself through “Weighed Sin,” not forcing the words but labouring over them, his voice buckling at notes the way hands do lifting heavy weights, is enough.
The whole of “Weighed Sin” sounds like that: an amplified version of a sombre, anxious songwriter. The guitar twang is enforced; it’s so loud and reoccurring it makes country rock sound the way M83 would have it, the textures turned up to the point of no return. It doesn’t surprise me to learn that the song originally appeared on a split between VanGaalen and Xiu Xiu, because it loses its balance the way the best of Jamie Stewart’s best synth-work does, and VanGaalen seeks out uncertainty so it can be held up to you like a corpse: “last night I weighed my sin” is reduced into merely “last night I weighed my,” a fear that can only be addressed once.
“Weighed Sin” can tell you what draws me to Shrink Dust on its own: its country rock makes for wastelands, beautifully ornamented, and there VanGaalen stands, without the map, wavering between aghast and resigned. Those feelings reoccur through the record, notably on “Cut Off My Hands” and “Hangman’s Son.” But there are some truly scorching moments on Shrink Dust, too: “Where Are You?” is like a playful, tinkering version of all the abstractions offered on Diaper Island (2011), and “Leaning on Bells” is VanGaalen expertly showing off his ugliest chords. They’re fine, but they’re not where the record gets its power. I’m happy to have them, because they make this feel like a classic VanGaalen record, full of different types of gems and warts. But it’s in the songs that teeter on the edge, where the twang feels like the last button pressed before an apocalypse, that Shrink Dust becomes special.
Still, and with thanks to those songs, Shrink Dust takes me back to the days when Chad VanGaalen’s records were stitched together, a loose collection of home recordings in different styles. Diaper Island shattered this illusion, this sense that his records were incongruous video game worlds you could flick through at your leisure. No more zones, no different shades—just this one slab of indecent guitar muck. Recorded around the release of Women’s Public Strain (2010), which might go down as his most iconic production work, Diaper Island promised itself to their sound rather than to his own world of possibilities. Where there was once a sense of majesty and journeying in VanGaalen’s music, there was now this shit-stain to nowhere, comprised of bleakly-tuned guitars, distorted vocals and very rare moments of noise rock lucidity. Shrink Dust, though, fondly resembles the twists and turns of Soft Airplane (2009) and Infiniheart (2004), trawling through noisy, callous rockers before switching to the most obviously countrified songs of VanGaalen’s career. There’s even a TMBG-esque kid’s tune on here. Shit stinks of whatever it wants to.
There’s a great thematic abandon to Shrink Dust, as a result. It’s only statement of intent is “I’m a monster,” which could never be true of the sweet-voiced VanGaalen. Without a purpose, Shrink Dust feels all the more randomly beautiful, a collection of homemade songs so vulnerable you fear you could drop them. Between his tightrope vocals and the softness/loudness of his compositions, the record crumbles. “Cut Off My Hands” sounds like it’s been made out of weak stitching, VanGaalen sliding down his steel guitar as if something’s about to decompose—be it his hands or his guitar. Every new instrument introduced to ornament VanGaalen’s playing is quietly terrifying: the flat sax and the whittling twang seem to create more of the same tension, adding weight to a song that desperately needs to end.
“Cut Off My Hands” reinforces my belief that if the two halves of VanGaalen had a fight—the lonely, death-obsessed creeper vs. the Everybody Poops of indie rawk funny man—the former would win. He is a funny songwriter, and a grotesque one, but I’ve always been blinded by the sheer beauty of his work. Maybe it’s because none of his records start off with a joke. “Willow Tree” is a given; it’s the most majestically sad song I’ve ever heard, and the only thing that’s funny about that is it’s played on a banjo. There’s “Clinically Dead,” a thunderously urgent song from its first riff, which sounds like an apocalypse blockbuster that wasn’t made for the money. There are examples of the prankster sprinkled through his discography, but there’s nothing quite as tragic as putting on a Chad VanGaalen record.
“Monster” is proof enough of a gross, immature songwriter who secretly breaks your heart. You can hear him singing lines like “Ripping my eyelids a little bit wider are two prying hands that grew out from my shoulders” with a shit-eating grin, but even then, I’m not going to laugh. There have been a lot of indie rock songs about self-identifying as a metamorphosed creep, but Chad VanGaalen’s “Monster” might be the most sympathetic. Where Will Sheff and Vic Chesnutt mean it, feel the monster inside them, VanGaalen sounds self-effacing, a monster you could never truly believe in. The song before “Monster” is vulnerable as shit, and the one that follows it is the very same: “Monster” is just some sort of tragicomic blip in beauty, and so among the steel guitar ditty, complemented with all the didgeridoo fart noises in the world, you just hear naivety. As ever with VanGaalen, Shrink Dust is too bashful to be gruesome. The only monster he could be is Calgary’s BFG.