John Vanderslice seems to have grown up in the time between Mass Suicide Occult Figurines and Time Travel Is Lonely. He still has the same wit and the same ironic perspective on life—find another songwriter who would turn “Ikea” into a verb as he does on “My Old Flame”—but compared with the joking quality of his previous album, Time Travel is Lonely is much more internal and touching.
With a voice that seems only half-serious while still being sincere, Vanderslice journeys through the nature of loneliness. From the adolescent heartbreak of “You Were My Fiji” to the deceptively bouncy “If I Live or If I Die”, Vanderslice is exploring the connections and disconnections in relationships. His voice is sometimes at odds with the music, and the slightly off feel complements the overall impression that something in Vanderslice’s world is not quite right, and even he doesn’t know what it is that’s wrong. Time Travel Is Lonely has him looking for answers in the everyday events that surround him.
Vanderslice’s lyrics tend to be a little obscured due to his quirky delivery and the appealing music that surrounds them, but they’re worth paying attention to. On the reflective “Everything Changed”, he recounts a seeing a girl hit by a car and he sings “could’ve been the blood in her matted hair, or how regrets of the dying are added to the air”. The dark lyrics play against the bright synths and impish drums, making the song much more complex than it is on a superficial listen.
Time Travel is Lonely does tend to pull itself down, though, with too much contrast. While Vanderslice makes his point, he also seems to shy away from saying what he truly means. Tracks like “Do You Remember?”—where he recalls famous but faceless figures from recent history—don’t add much to the effect of the work as a whole, and the three “Interludes” just seem to take up unnecessary space. Still, at just under 35 minutes with 13 songs, Vanderslice doesn’t overstay his welcome.
Vanderslice is still a musician to watch, especially when songs like the elegant “Emma Pearl” are taken into account. He seems to be slowly shedding his quirkier tendencies, becoming more thoughtful and honest as he grows into his music. Even where it fails, Time Travel Is Lonely is still admirable for its warmth and its originality, which says a lot for John Vanderslice and what he’s trying to do.