John Vanderslice is quickly proving himself to be one of the best songwriters to come around in a long time. Quietly pursuing a style that is as ambitiously literary as it is sonically multi-textural, he kills on both counts. Each listen offers more on every level, opening up wider and wider until the listener feels as if she could walk into this record, and live there, and never be bored.
At fist it doesn’t sound that way. Like many records in this particular genre, Pixel Revolt‘s first few spins are a tad dull. The plethora of instruments and noises sound staged and stiff. The lyrics are too much to take in. Then it starts to come together. Playing in the background, you’ll have to rush into the next room, wondering if you indeed heard that wonderfully quirky and smart line (“I lost, I lost your bunny/ I let him out of the cage/ He was eating spring mix on the carpet/ He jumped through a window into the haze” from “Angela”). Put it on in the car with a passenger and wait until she interrupts a conversation to say, “Can we listen to that last one again” (“Exodus Damage”). Then you’ll notice you want to hear it first thing in the morning, and again at night.
Pixel Revolt is John Vanderslice’s fifth full-length and marks a maturity and self-assuredness unheard from him until this moment. His past work was good, very good at times, but Pixel Revolt raises his artistry to another level. It’s a moment in music when you realize that this person has just made a record that is Important. Not in a Change-the-Course way, but in that way where 20 years from now some kid who got the record from his cool aunt decides to start a band and name checks John Vanderslice. And then the next up-and-coming young musician does. And pretty soon it’s as if no one ever did anything but listen to John Vanderslice (ask Burt Bacharach about this). Pixel Revolt has that intensity that starts small, well-meaning, polite rock ‘n’ roll cults.
So what does it sound like? Jackson Browne fronting the Postal Service. A summer nap where you wake up and someone is handing you iced coffee and is just about to break your heart. Jeremy Enigk with a doctorate in American Studies (sampling of subjects covered on Pixel Revolt: Joan Crawford, terrorism, pharmaceuticals, poetry). Conor Oberst if he were 10 years older and had the common sense to say ‘no’ to Winona Ryder and 90% of his press requests. Your best friend who can never get a date even though he has the greatest sense of humor you know. Randy Newman if he spent a weekend golfing with Jon Brion and then forgot to pretend to be sarcastic.
Pixel Revolt is stories. Fourteen of them. It may sound like too many but it’s not. The characters in them are confused, sad, suicidal, and sometimes recognize an ache known as love. They all know, or learn, that other human beings make a difference. Sometimes they know it and it sounds like the worst kind of curse. When they learn it, it’s so revelatory it almost circles around to become a prayer. There’s an instrumental that is so effective as either a eulogy or the promise of one that you have to stop and float along with it (“The Golden Gate”). There’s a song that sounds like a celebration of the best parts of ‘90s alternative rock and the lyrics are adapted from a Robert Lowell poem(!). Pixel Revolt is cinematic in the slow-paced, deliberate character-study way of such great films as Paris, Texas and Magnolia. The instrumentation means something, but you have give it the proper time to reveal itself. A violin enters and leaves and it’s not until the 10th listen that you understand it symbolizes a feeling. All of this, and there’s not a moment that is pretentious, cleverly judgmental, or coy.
John Vanderslice has not created a compelling first listen. Perhaps, and only time will tell, he has created a compelling lifelong listen. The music matches the lyrics which matches the vocals that go back and match up with the music all over again. It’s an aural symbiosis. With a record this good, the only question to ask is whatever will John Vanderslice do next?