John Vanderslice’s last album, Pixel Revolt, was firmly rooted in the collective American post-9/11 psyche. It was an album full of fear and glimmers of hope, of the inhuman and ugly right up next to the stunningly beautiful. The album was and is very much a product of its time, and the same could be said of Vanderslice’s new effort, Emerald City. However, like some of Pixel Revolt, the entirety of Emerald City seeks to elevate to the personal and the timeless, and top to bottom it is a success.
The album deals with legal troubles Vanderslice and his French girlfriend have run into trying to obtain a visa for her to come to America. Her initial visa application was rejected and, even as the album is being released, the situation remains unresolved. Since most of Emerald City was written while this legal limbo went on, it is an album full of frustration and anger, love and loss. Opener “Kookaburra” starts simply, with John’s vocals over acoustic guitar and as he sings, “White on white, like streamers of dirty confetti” he is setting you up for the next moment, when the rhythm section kicks in and the songs goes from its pristine start into a world of dingy snowdrifts. “Time to Go” is full of fuzzy distortion, pumping the Manifest Destiny narrative, with men pushing horses to their limit toward the shore, full of soldier-march chugging. And the lead single, “White Dove”, muddles the acoustic guitar to inject the song with foreshadowing as the narrator, spending time with his neighbor, inadvertently unearths her grief over a kidnapped child.
These flourishes are what Vanderslice is known for. He is a master producer and musician, and he and his Tiny Telephone studio are well-respected in the indie community. However, Vanderslice the Producer has long overshadowed Vanderslice the Songwriter, and while the wonderful Pixel Revolt did much in the way of tilting the scales towards the songwriter, Emerald City puts the production almost entirely in the backseat. Unlike some of his other work, Vanderslice doesn’t use the fuzz and electronic touches to add a layer to these songs. Instead, they bolster what’s already there, and allow the listener to see Vanderslice’s remarkable knack for meshing compelling narratives with tight songcraft.
In the wake of the awkward and sad “White Dove”, “A Tablespoon of Codeine” marks a shift in the album, a shift to a more cold and isolated narrator (or group of narrators), and while it is probably the most electronic-driven song on the album, it is also the most understated and the music bolsters the lyrics perfectly. The song also showcases the album’s biggest strength. While the song deals with conspiracy theorists and 9/11 allusions, the heart of the song is the injured narrator’s isolation. “Don’t want anymore codeine, wanted to make it on my own tonight,” he sings, and Vanderslice’s soft, lilting vocals drive his loneliness home. Like the rest of the album, this song is too personal and heartbreaking to be just a post-9/11 effort. Instead, its detail ensures that listeners ten years from now can get the same experience that we get from hearing it today.
Still, for such a short album—Emerald City clocks in around 38 minutes—this batch of songs takes on some weighty subject matter. The new isolationism and growing fear of immigration, increased beaurocracy tied inevitably to political agendas, wartime psyche, muddled morality—these things all come into play, but he’s never dragged down by theoretical baggage. Vanderslice knows that for examination of these bigger ideas to work they have to be rooted in compelling personal narratives. And there is no better example of that than closer “Central Booking”.
The quiet, piano-driven track is easily the most beautiful song Vanderslice has ever written. The song deals more directly with his legal trouble than any other on the album, and his voice sounds as smooth as it is brittle, set to break at any moment. It is also a perfect meshing of big ideas with personal experience. When he sings, “Looks like September has won once again,” you can feel his personal disappointment and hurt while at the same time being given this subtle examination of American politics. Emerald City, more than any post-9/11 album that comes to mind, manages to examine the ways political constructs end up affecting the individual. It’s a perfect combination of intricate songwriting, confident production, and heartfelt execution. As the piano in “Central Booking” plays on, cascading over the track long after Vanderslice has stopped singing, you can feel the loss and isolation that has permeated the whole album, but as that piano starts to fade out, you’ll want to go back to the beginning and hear it all over again.