Dagger Beach's sense of loss and experimentation makes it come across as a kind of midpoint between the Mountain Goats' Get Lonely and Devendra Banhart's Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon. It's an album that doesn't just reward several listens, it demands them.
When Amanda Palmer raised a million dollars on Kickstarter in 2012, it made musical crowd sourced fundraising the Next Big Thing. In some respects, that moniker has held up. From the first half of 2013 alone, Kickstarter's logo could be in the credits of albums by Murder by Death, Kevin Devine, Black Moth Super Rainbow, Jo Dee Messina, Cannibal Ox, Brand New, Toad the Wet Sprocket, and Polyphonic Spree, just to name a few. Singer-songwriter-indie legend John Vanderslice himself raised almost $80,000 to self-release Dagger Beach, a weird and wonderful album that will grab you somewhere between listens 3 and 4 and not let go.
This suits Vanderslice, who was never a grab-you-on-the-first-listen kind of artist. He's too subtle, his lyrics often mundane and deeply connected to music that itself is subtle, almost wallflowery. Dagger Beach is Vanderslice's 9th full-length, and virtually nothing in his oeuvre could be considered remotely flashy. But Vanderslice is revered for a reason. Each album has incredible depths to be plumbed once you take the time to inhabit the songs, to take your shoes off, note the faded wallpaper and meet the characters. Sometimes they are funny. More often they are tragic. The players on Dagger Beach fall readily into the latter category.
The story behind the album goes like this: Vanderslice returned from a long and exhausting European tour to find that his wife of six years was leaving him. So, he did what any (okay, maybe just a few) heartbroken and exhausted people would do: he hiked hundreds of miles of back-country California. That sense of isolation, of dirt trails through endless quiet forest, of lonesome windswept coasts and narrow roads leading to nowhere, permeates the album. But don't be mistaken: Dagger Beach is a breakup record in the way that Dark Side of the Moon is a record about astronomy. The theme is just a backdrop, a blank canvas ready for paint. Breakups are about disillusionment, disconnection, loss and hurt, and if you've been paying attention to Vanderslice's career, you'd know that's par for the course. 2005's excellent Pixel Revolt was brutal in a way that Scandinavian metal bands would die to come close to.
Dagger Beach features ruminations on time, pain, nature and loneliness, all in opener "Raw Wood", whose darkly shimmering piano line gives a malevolent edge to its centerpiece image. "Harlequin Press" is a well-worn morality tale about hubris and publishing, Vanderslice perhaps summing up his own creative persona when he calls a woman's manuscript, "a promising total mess." Other highlights include two songs dedicated to others, "Song for Dana Lok" and "Song for David Berman", the latter a succinct rumination on connection and disconnection in the modern world: "I called my doctor on his cell / the call went straight to voice mail." In general, though, the tracks blend together into a searching, despairing mass, including a handful of meandering interludes which parallel the sense of wandering which spawned the album.
Vanderslice has a knack for mixing the raw and experimental with the measured and introspective, and Dagger Beach is a reflection of that. The instrumentation is varied and surprising, like the woodwinds, strings and chirping whistles were spontaneously generated. The unpredictability forces the listener to immerse him or herself in the experience, resulting in an album that feels rich and weathered like a piece of driftwood turned into a coffee table. It is full of small imperfections, often a result of Vanderslice's proclivity for analog recording, but that's part of its charm.
On the chorus to "Exodus Damage", arguably the best song from Pixel Revolt, Vanderslice sings, "Go, go, go, go down / Let it fall down / I'm ready for the end." It's a weeping wound of a song, an impotent, resigned tantrum using 9/11 as its backdrop. It shows as much emotion as the album about the ending of his marriage, and in some ways Dagger Beach is the spiritual follow-up to Pixel Revolt, full of songs that bleed and moan and wander the California coast. There's no climax to Dagger Beach, but one can't help but think this was intentional. Vanderslice in his late 40s isn't raging against the dying of the light. He's walking in the woods and making pastel sketches, painting poetry while waiting patiently for the end.