Humans have a special ability to organize remarkably complex ideas. In music, we can orchestrate various instruments and tones in a way that leaves every note in just the right spot, every crescendo well-placed, and every rest necessary. This skill helps to separate us from the animals. Perhaps that’s why the narrator of “Up above the Sea” must kill the bluebird that watches him for hours.
Either that or he’s just demented.
We shouldn’t be surprised at the burst of violence at the song’s conclusion. Cellar Door, John Vanderslice’s fourth album, portrays a variety of individuals responding to disturbing situations, often in unpraiseworthy acts. Vanderslice avoids the theatrical gloom of a Nick Cave, choosing instead an emotional foray into the harder sides of life, such as family pressures, soldiering, moral fallout, and literal and metaphorical lightning strikes. As tough as life is for Vanderslice’s narrators, it’s worse to be close to them. Children die, parents are abandoned, and everyone’s enveloped in violence. Vanderslice captures the struggle for peace in “Coming and Going on Easy Terms”. A father struggles to admit to and deal with the death of his son in the place where “fear and sorrow coalesce”. He tries unsteadily to live without the hurt, but his increasing heart-rate holds him to his unwelcome thoughts.
Despite the trials of its storytellers, Cellar Door offers hope, explaining that like light reflecting off water, we’re “never making it down to the bottom”. On “Lunar Landscapes”, Vanderslice dreams of running on the beach with a tired racehorse, inspiring beauty and feeling it himself. The dream’s power hinges on its overturning the imagery of the opening track, “Pale Horse”, which contains the obvious apocalyptic symbolism and concerns about violence. Vanderslice drew this song from Percy Shelley’s “The Mask of Anarchy” and “The Call to Freedom”, both of which urge the masses to nonviolent resistance.
If dreaming and fortitude are paths out, epiphany is another. In “June July” the narrator explores a Civil War battlefield at night, trying to gain an emotional and intellectual understanding of the death and horror of the battle. After an album of isolation and emptiness, the singer seems like someone unsuccessfully trying to feel and connect. Then he’s hit by lightning. It’s hardly a pleasurable experience, but when he revives, he sees that “the sun was streaming over the fields / warming the ground soaked with summer rain”. After “light was focused down on” him, his ability to feel—and to feel good—returns.
As developed as his lyrics are, Vanderslice has shown at least as much attention to his music. The parts of Cellar Door are assembled like the parts of a symphony, but the sound is all pop and no orchestra, despite the strings, timpani, and brass instruments. We can attribute the sound to what Vanderslice describes as his “sloppy hi-fi” production technique, an idea that’s over-discussed and a term that’s probably a misnomer. Vanderslice records in his own studio, Tiny Telephone, where he also produces artists like the Mountain Goats. He works with hi-fi analog equipment, but nothing about his work deserves the term “sloppy”. Vanderslice and engineer Scott Solter make sure every sound on the record works perfectly. I’ve seen OCD kids who are sloppier than this.
Cellar Door challenges its listeners emotionally and intellectually, without ever feeling pretentious. John Vanderslice has created an album that’s mechanically precise, yet emotionally warm, and he’s given us characters who we’d rather avoid, but can’t help caring about. This album stretches itself in many directions without thinning out, and it’s an accomplishment to be admired, more like a running horse than an exploding bluebird.