Vicissitude is a $50 word, and, maybe, you might be asking yourself “...what does it mean”? According to the dictionary, it is “the quality or state of being changeable”; it also refers to “natural change or mutation visible in nature or in human affairs”. How about “a favorable or unfavorable event or situation that occurs by chance: a fluctuation of state or condition”? And it could also be “a difficulty or hardship attendant on a way of life, a career, or a course of action and usually beyond one’s control”. Meh, let’s settle on “alternating change” and call it a day.
For Maps—the alias for one-man band James Chapman, a resident of Northampton, England, and a former Mercury Prize nominee—Vicissitude is, indeed, an album of change. According to the publicity on the record label’s website, Chapman says, “The whole album is about change. It’s about dealing with a struggle—whatever that may be—and ultimately coming through it”. Here’s the thing, though: for an album purportedly about change, and is even named after it, Vicissitude is a case of plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The songs, with an exception or two, sound all like carbon copies of each other—which is to say that they all come across as Caribou getting star-crossed with the Pet Shop Boys, or ‘80s synth pop meets indie pop. That, in and of itself, is pretty much a given, considering that Maps is on Depeche Mode’s label. That’s fine—if you’re dealing with an EP’s worth of material. Padded out to a full album, on the other hand, it leaves the listener ready to stick sharp needles in their eyes by the time one gets to the seventh or eighth track on a 10 song long album because the whole thing begins to sound a whole lot repetitive with very little else left to say.
That said, there are subtleties to be had here, and some of the songs experiment with deviations in volume that are quite interesting. And, strangely enough, the most striking examples come at the beginning and end of the record. At the start, “A.M.A.” begins with some head nodding boop-bip beats and comes off as being a more robotic version of the style of synth music that was popular 30 years ago. But, then, about mid-way through, Chapman pulls the rug out from underneath the listener, and the song becomes startlingly quiet. It’s an audacious change, and you can’t help but sit up and pay attention, unsure of what direction the artist is about to embark on next. On the other side of the fence, the album closes with the funeral dirge “Adjusted to the Darkness”, which, despite its Goth-y overtones, sounds remarkably joyous at the same time; it’s also striking because it’s so different from the material that precedes it for nine songs. It’s a little long, a caveat about the album as a whole that I’ll get to in a moment, but it does leave an impression because it effectively draws the shades on the synthy anthems of much of Vicissitude. It’s stark and startling, and it does leave you breathless at its fragile beauty.
However, there is a fundamental flaw to the proceedings and I can count it off by rambling on about song titles and their running length. “Built to Last” is indeed just that as it clocks in at six minutes and 14 seconds. “You Will Find a Way” finds a way to run for six minutes and 18 seconds. “Nicholas” is six minutes and 37 seconds long. “Left Behind” leaves the radio friendly pop single in the dust by coming in at five minutes and six seconds. “Insignificant Others” is a significant five minutes and 54 seconds in length. And on it could go with pretty much the rest of the album. James Chapman is in terrible need of an editor; not that going long is necessarily a bad thing at times, but the album reaches to be epic and just winds up prattling on beyond the point of natural expiry. The song “Nicholas”, by way of example, consists virtually of the titular character’s name being chanted over and over by Chapman, which is just overkill at more than six minutes.
The sheer overlength of the LP deflates any kind of poppy goodwill that it tries to build up, and Vicissitude is an example of exhaustion: too much of the same, dolloped like an extra scoop of ice cream on a cone that causes the whole mass to topple over, leaving you all sticky and teary-eyed for losing some good eats. In the end, what you can say about Vicissitude is that for a record supposedly about change, there’s not nearly enough of it. There’s some good material sprinkled throughout—“Left Behind” with its almost gospel-esque feel is a particular favourite, and it doesn’t hurt that it’s the third shortest thing on the record—but the trick of a decent artist is to leave you wanting more. Vicissitude is certainly a piece that you could do with less of—when Chapman sings “It’s so insignificant to me” at one point (ad nauseam), you believe it—leaving you to hope that perhaps Chapman will learn a lesson in excess here and be much more concise in the future. As it stands, Vicissitude is the very dictionary definition of mostly fat, and not enough lean meat that you can really sink your teeth into.