(Flemish Eye/Sub Pop; 2011)
By Colin McGowan | 17 May 2011
It has been said Chad VanGaalen makes haunting music. Or: I imagine this has been said, by someone, because his songs sound like if a campfire could talk. Truly, VanGaalen’s art has always seemed plucked from nightmares; look no further than his self-animated “Molten Light” video, which could be an episode of the version of The Simpsons they air in Hell. Though haunting doesn’t necessarily equate terror—when writerly types attribute this quality to music, it usually means someone is standing a few feet back from the microphone, or their vocals are trapped in a reverb-y effect bubble— for much of the thoroughly and expectedly great Diaper Island, Chad VanG sounds like he has a ghost limb blooming from his throat. Which is both terrifying and sonically disorienting; I have been on the train and bus with a poltergeist in my ears most days this week—“Saaaaa-ruhhhhhhh! / Wake me up when you’re hohhhhhhme!”—which is a sensation about as deliciously disturbing as pretty much everything VanGaalen does.
But to treat his music as the bedroom balladry of a particularly melancholy inhabitant of a haunted house is to sell it short, is to ignore how he explores the connotations of the word haunting in a way most musicians don’t—or can’t. Diaper Island is haunting like past lovers, haunting like homesickness, haunting like mold in the fruit bin of your refrigerator. His vocals might sound disembodied, but the feeling his music evokes is poignantly and difficultly human, riddled with contradiction, coming apart at the seams, and beset by the less-than-epic quotidian.
Diaper Island is billed, sort of inaccurately, as Chad VanGaalen’s “rock” album—or at least his “rock-ish-est” album. His guitars are sometimes louder and more kinetic than they’ve ever been—as on the throbbing, sad “Burning Photographs”—and the Calgary native’s voice intermittently builds to a humid wail, but Island is not a significant departure from the aesthetic established over the course of CVG’s discography. I would argue Lindsay Zoladz sells the album more accurately as “basically just 40 minutes of guitars doing all of [her] favorite things that guitars do,” but in more precise terms, the guitar tones that create the typical room around which VanGaalen’s voice typically reverberates are at their most varied here. Flame-like on “Sara,” brash on “Freedom for a Policeman,” ramshackle on “Can You Believe It?”, lilting on “No Panic / No Heat”: this variety, almost in the attitude of the way VanGaalen assembles his instruments, allows the album to avoid monotony. VanGaalen’s distinct sound is ghastly, blasphemous, unhinged, adroit, even sometimes diaphanous, the noise of a person pulled at by memory, failure, responsibility, time, and that uncomfortable unknowingness that accompanies getting older. And in this, somehow, a consistency emerges.
From this diverse palette, VanGaalen’s workmanlike lyrics fill the air like evaporated sweat. On “Heavy Stones,” his voice plods alongside a weary guitar, and he drifts into a half-hearted lament—“I’ve been living in my head so long”—before realizing its implications, exasperated, revealing, “I can’t remember your name / I can’t remember anything / And all that’s been had is just a hand on a string.” “Wandering Spirits” features what I imagine to be sailors struggling with a moment of existentialism: “Throw those bodies from the ship / Let’s feed them to the sea / ‘Cause no one can remember how they got here anyway.” I’m sure VanGaalen would churn out pleasant enough sorta-folk without writing like this—I might suggest he compose a couple video game soundtracks in his spare time (actually, I still suggest this)—but his effortless grasp of the uncanny renders VanGaalen’s music something that necessitates headphones, something that requires sloshing around one’s head for a week or two to fully present its brilliance. Something that floats to the corner of one’s brainpan and grows, quietly like a cobweb, taking its place as another symbol of the corners of our psyche best left un-cleaned, best left to their own spectral ends, while our real house collects dust.
It’s worth admitting that the lyrics emblazoned into the memories of most listeners will be the ones about VanGaalen shaving his non-existent vagina so “you’ll love [him], baby.” Needless to say, “Shave My Pussy” is Island’s most confounding track, one that rides a nauseous rhythm roughly as childish as the ostensible joke at its core. VanGaalen’s lyrics spill out haphazardly and fade, handfuls of melting snow around the mouth of a draining sink. He rambles about holding up the checkout line at the supermarket and about suppressed feelings; he feels ugly; he caps it with the refrain, “Oh, I really don’t know how we can stand still in all of this snow.” It’s gross, but also sort of gripping and funny.
Maybe “Shave My Pussy” is an inside joke, maybe it’s an ill-conceived metaphor, maybe it’s VanGaalen fucking around, but it’s effect is more trenchant than its title could ever suggest. And it functions well as a microcosm of what Chad VanG accomplishes on Diaper Island: he uses his guitar and ghost-like warble to render the ephemeral as concrete as cantaloupe. It makes sense, too, I think—dreaming and feeling nomadic are activities in the same way walking to the laundromat is. You’re probably doing one of the former while performing the latter. And meanwhile, Diaper Island is that unnerving reminder there’s a phantom in your soul but, more importantly, a family of mice in your storm gutters.