John Vanderslice

Emerald City

(Barsuk; 2007)

By Conrad Amenta | 18 July 2007

John Vanderslice has had a bit of trouble finding his niche. He's too thematic and vaguely conceptual to be purely pop; too straightforwardly poppy to be described as genre-hopping or cross-cultural; too controlled (perhaps the producer in him) to mimic the flamboyancy of Hawksley Workman (with whom he seemingly shares a voice); and all too willing to deal with topics of mild discomfort -- see here as Emerald City, his sixth album for Barsuk, cites "a burning tower" where "people are jumping out," or a protagonist who's "got steel dust in a vial" in his pocket "from Tower Two" -- to really break through the way his old label mates Death Cab for Cutie have. That Vanderslice describes a landscape of ghost towers, landmarks made disappeared (destroyed or simply forgotten?) and a paranoiac figure who insists that "what happened in September was fake" isn't going to play well on the OC, but it isn't worded with enough vitriol to inspire the rhetoric junkies either. This isn't a failing; Vanderslice just seems most comfortable treading the middle ground most of us inhabit, the curiosity that makes us interested in different perspectives and makes good musicians write about them.

Is the middle ground strange for the man whose biggest claim to fame is being investigated for singing "Bill Gates must die," or maturation so unexceptionally normal that if you blink you'll miss it? It's difficult to say; easier to mark is the process as he has quietly and consistently released album after solid album on which mid-Western malaise often meets navel-gazing reflection. Never was this clearer than on The Life and Death of an American Fourtracker (2002), but each subsequent effort has returned to the wellspring combination of the placement of pop-cultural products in one's life, the inability to understand what these products represent relative to major, catastrophic events, and the (ho-hum) inevitability of death.

Vanderslice's lyrical conflation of melancholy observation and the pseudo-fantastic has also remained steadfast. Here the shock and awe of the just-post-9/11 has faded into the dull ache of contemplation. His sound, however, though remaining squarely between the two lines drawn by his (still) best album Time Travel is Lonely (2001), has been refined so that any eccentricity, surely once thought the most obviously marketable aspect of his music, is now unquestionably passé. Each of the nine songs here is immaculately crafted, unsurprising indie rock in the mid-tempo vein, and is accordingly neither disappointing nor spectacularly gripping. A short album, too, Emerald City's concision feels like a stopgap in Vanderslice's discography.

The album opens with what could be called a typical Vanderslician inspection: "Lightning shot from the sky / It breathed life into every / every living thing / It made you, it made me / it gave us the kookaburra." The combination of whimsical fantasy and frankly stated observation is complemented with an easily strummed acoustic. Even when the song takes what is supposed to be its unexpected turn into a palm-muted chug, it can hardly be described as a rock out, nor is that what's called for. It might be an odd album opener if we were not talking about Vanderslice, a man whose uncompromising nature has rarely been associated with convoluted anger or passionate outburst, even during what can only be described as Emerald City's brief moment of catharsis, the fuzzy revenge fantasies of "White Dove" ("white dove / don't come around here anymore"). Even the album's most heartbreaking moments, like the experience in "The Tower" of "collapsing hopes" and a trip "down to the Gulf" to "let my friends go," never shines a flashlight into its own face. It chooses instead to be affable and honest (though rarely achieving the devastating contrast ofCellar Door's authenticity, with its description of wading into Afghani poppy fields and hunting from cave to cave). Here, when Vanderslice sings "I can see both sides," it's not fatigued, scared, or patronizing, as so many of quote-unquote political bands so often (endlessly) are.

The album's best moment comes in the late "Numbered Lithograph," which seems to shudder apart under the uncomplicated admission that Vanderslice had "never been lonelier." Emerald City may seem sometimes like smashing counter-portraiture against mainstream rhetoric, using broad strokes to pose a retort, but it's the occasional individuality of real confession that pokes through the numbing din of the argument itself.

The problem is that Vanderslice's lyrical scope remains too broad to enable a cohesive or definitive conceptual statement, and his music too tightly defined and predictable to be considered a departure. These two elements need to move inwards, towards one another on the spectrum. It may be unfair to impose on Vanderslice the pomposity often associated with a concept album, but the thematic reoccurrences are too obvious to ignore. One of these days Vanderslice will either benefit from sanding down his lyrical ambition to match his musical tenor, or by un-snipping the binding wires from around his micro-managed sound. Or, I suppose, he'll continue to plug away, releasing every year or two another perfectly likable, if unremarkable, anthropological pass by the zeitgeist.