After years of near-silence from the upstarts of the Elephant 6 Recording Company, there’s been a resurgence of sorts in recent years. There’s been a wildly successful “holiday surprise” tour comprising various members of the collective that managed to will resident genius-in-hiding Jeff Mangum into his first public performance in seven years, a flurry of recording activity bearing the newly-reinstated E6 logo, a reunion tour (and a possible forthcoming album) from the Olivia Tremor Control, and now Circulatory System’s long-delayed follow-up to its 2001 self-titled debut. As exciting as all of this buzzing motion surely is to long-time fans, it’s also appropriate, given the familial warmth always inherent in the work of this close-knit artistic community: a family may drift apart for years at a time, but in most cases, they always find their way back home.
Thankfully, there’s no temporal signs apparent on Signal Morning, a rousing success whose compositional magnitude is only outweighed by the surprise of how damn good it is. It would be easy—and even tiringly expected—for a comeback album seven and a half years in the making to fulfill fears most fans dread in such situations: a half-baked rehash of the old with a few gleaming flints of genius specked throughout, although nothing sturdy enough to justify such a drawn-out wait. No such fate is evident here.
Spending his time in the interim between albums battling Multiple Sclerosis, Will Cullen Hart may have reasonably taken his time collecting material for his 2009 return, however, it’s clear this time was wisely spent. Utilizing at least seven recording studios and assistance from a plethora of friends, Signal Morning is pieced together with disparate strands woven carefully into a whole, yet somehow never falls culprit to feeling scattered or unfocused. If anything, this winding work method lends the album an adventurous character, reminiscent of a stroll through the weary yet heart-rending and ultimately strengthening journey of a survivor and artist who’s managed to extract a certain amount of grace out of his misfortunes.
There are no enormous departures or artistic leaps here, but that’s only befitting to an album serving as a welcome return home. Signal Morning finds Hart, instead of pulling away from his past, returning to his strengths, yet there’s an exploratory nature offered through his lyrics and his ability to add new, interesting layers and dynamics to his signature fractured-bubblegum approach. Hart still finds the workings of the world fascinating, yet there’s a plaintive respite between his thoughts and his observations and words. These are the musings of someone who’s grateful for the universe he lives in, but who is at the same time naturally curious and consistently inquisitive of how it all falls together, and that audacious sense of whimsy is what keeps Circulatory System’s music from being solipsistic or mind-numbing.
A contributing factor in how well-executed Hart’s vision is lays in his intricate yet jumbled arrangements. Signal Morning is split into two distinct sides—even on CD—giving the record a useful balance that emboldens the familiarity of the tunes and serves to help illustrate the contrasting depth in songwriting. Side one (tracks one through nine) exhibits buoyancy in how its fragmented blasts of experimental noise, utilizing twisty-turny yet playful medleys and song structures, slither with finesse through sweetened, abridged slices of fractured, delicate pop. Side two (tracks 10-17) consists of disquieting yet introspective sound collages spliced together with distant, faded melodies, retaining an overcast edge with darker undertones that display the vigor gained through what’s been lost and found. These two individual yet corresponding halves of the same whole provide a proper complement that enforces the overall thematic quality of the record. It’s a bold maneuver that could have easily backfired by seeming like a pretentious artifice or a crutch for weak songwriting with a lesser musician at helm, yet in the hands of Will Hart, we witness someone in full control of his creativity, striving forward with agility, yet holding firm to his accessibly experimental roots.
Given how complexly interlaced the record is—and how common a conception it is that Bill Doss was the OTC mastermind of resounding pop while Hart contrasted him with layers of tricky studio effects—it may initially appear that Signal Morning lacks strong individual songs. After several spins (and I assure you not many more), it becomes more and more obvious how many stand-outs rank among the 17 songs here. “Overjoyed” finds itself swerving through a number of jumpy, schizophrenic verses before folding in on itself miraculously before it could implode. “Blasting Through” sounds as if it’s seeping out of the signals of some distant college radio station, its sharp detachment serving to embody the urgency of the song. The sweet, guileless pop of “This Morning (We Remembered Everything)” rivals the best of Elephant 6’s classics in terms of balancing hissing exploration with childlike innocence. Best of all, “Round Again”‘s surging, clattering, spinning wheel chaos stands as one of the greatest songs of the year, subverting structure while inventing new ways to surprise with each barreling passage.
In the years following the gradual dissipation of Elephant 6’s dominance of the neo-psychedelic movement, we’ve witnessed a growing surge of bands in the indie rock world—from Animal Collective and the Microphones to Annuals and the Dodos—who’ve learned valiantly from the giants involved in this restlessly inventive collective. In revisiting their history and becoming enveloped in their long-awaited return to prominence, it’s only stood to cement their influence and undying spirit. Even if the likes of Circulatory System, et al., never set foot inside a recording studio again, their indelible eminence as maverick, indisputable legends in pop music’s sprawling history would be secure, yet in true fashion they’ve continued supplying their long-time fans with a refreshing, gratifying gift of enduring quality, and maybe even a reintroduction to a new generation. Signal Morning is not only a vital part of that continued excellence; it’s one of the best damn albums of the year.