John Vanderslice turns 42 this month. Yes, the big four-zero, plus two: that’s more years than this album has minutes, and twice the age, I suspect, of much of his fanbase. You wouldn’t guess it listening to Romanian Names — firstly, I suppose, because it’s such a strikingly compelling batch of songs, devoid of staleness or complacency; and secondly, because there is such sincere concern throughout with memory, with youth, with uncertainty and rejection.
Vanderslice’s prolific nature — this is, after all, his seventh album in nine years — shows no sign of receding, without approaching the sheer overload of, say, Bob Pollard. 2005’s Pixel Revolt and its follow-up, Emerald City, were noted largely for their attempts to cope with a post-9/11 landscape steeped in paranoia and fear. Romanian Names scales back the overt political overtones in favor of more insular concerns. That’s not to say it’s any less steeped in alienation and dread (or “distressed mediums and rabbit holes”, as reads the credit for longtime co-producer/collaborate Scott Solter). It’s not. Simply, the focus feels more insular, more narrative than commentary.
And so, where once was the fear of “blackout bombs falling out of the sky tonight” (“Kookuburra”) there is now the revelation that “things are fucked up here in my room”. That pronouncement comes halfway through “C & O Canal”, a quasi-Caribbean groove atop which he laments a relationship gone suddenly awry. “You’ll never return,” he accepts, but “you could have told me then / Instead of in a letter from Syria.” “Fetal Horses” lands with an equally desperate blow: “At least today your pixilated bloody face / Seems to me to be finally dead with you and him / So come back to me again!” Musically, it’s an engaging though off-kilter first single, a hodgepodge of pianos and wavering synths clashing melodically beneath the tortured pleas.
This is not Vanderslice’s most sonically adventurous record overall, but it does not need to be. His most powerful songs seem often, at first, the most unassuming. Take, for example, the title track, its lone acoustic guitar an easy palette for the album’s most intimate moment. Then there’s “Sunken Union Boat”, a clear highlight that would not sound out of place on 2004’s Cellar Door. It unfolds with little more than acoustic minor chords and propulsive drums, like Spoon at its most distinctive. But a triumphant, driving melody takes form, and layers of imagery with it, childhood memories: “Fresh blood comes rushing back to me / I never thought I’d remember all of this so clear / It’s a trick of the mind.”
The wildcard is “Summer Stock”, a seething blues number that works surprisingly well. The drums clang with organic abandon, the guitars wah and gurgle — and it all marks a powerful counterpart to the record’s most electronic-driven moments (“Forest Knolls”, “Oblivion”). Placed successively at the album’s midpoint, those two seem like the only lull in momentum. The former treads in unsettling Eno territory, too melodically bare to support the singer’s barrage of hunting imagery; the latter is perhaps too brief and plodding to leave much of an impact.
“Hard Times” is the closer, and it’s a gorgeously sparse reinstatement of so many personal themes (“After the way it ended / I was bloodied and bruised / I needed to find out why you cut me off / And left me for dead”). He ends with an affirmation of uncertainty: “To find an answer I searched every sentence / And ended deeper still / In hard times.” As the violin swells fade slowly, waves of quiet regret, I can’t help but hope that such a deeply talented songwriter, musician, and producer falls upon brighter times.