Everyone tried to grow a garden in 2020. Some of them took up large tracts of land; some of them lived on tiny decks. Some of them, so it seems, turned into half-weeded masses of wild animal feed. Songwriter Chad VanGaalen took to the soil with more success than some of us and, it would seem, more enjoyment, except for the fact that he titled his latest album World’s Most Stressed Out Gardener. VanGaalen certainly doesn’t sound stressed. His latest songs have an element of hurt and darkness, but the artist himself sounds at ease in his ever-changing musical gambits.
It’s hard to know if VanGaalen seriously considered making a flute record – instrumental “Flute Peace” suggests that could be true, but it sounds more like mythmaking – but he has continued to explore the weirder elements of pop music. Single “Samurai Sword” builds on the sounds of torn-out plumbing converted into a musical instrument. VanGaalen follows these sorts of whims, but his albums don’t sound half-formed even as he bounds been ideas. Impulses turn into raw material for carefully crafted songs that ultimately cohere into something unique.
“Samurai Sword” could be read as a joke on the surface, as simply a goofy song about an unlikely object lost after a trip to the outhouse. With VanGaalen’s care, though, it turns into a song about something more ineffable – maybe deferred needs and the weight of community. Yet it’s bouncy enough that suggesting that level sounds ludicrous, too. The song works best as a bit of fancy that only hints at weightier matters.
Much of VanGaalen’s art works that way. If Gardener quietly plays in the background, its most striking feature might be its variety, as it moves from flute work to noisy pop, tracing a bit psychedelia on its journey. After instrumental “Plant Music” (possibly titled in a nod to Stevie Wonder?), VanGaalen gives us “Nothing Is Strange”, an odd phrase in the course of steadily strange tunes (unless that’s the point). The track delivers the deepest unease of the record. VanGaalen sings, “There’s nothing you can do, and there ain’t no escape,” and we realize that pruning tomato plants won’t get us through a personal apocalypse.
With that mindset, it’s no wonder VanGaalen has uncomfortable dreams and even faces a “Nightmare Scenario”. He faces “psychic pain”, and just as we think we might get some relief, we learn that his line “Take me to the river” isn’t an Al Green baptism but a different sort of immersion. As he rocks out, VanGaalen sings, “My cold corpse washed up on the shore / I couldn’t feel no pain / I couldn’t feel anything anymore.” VanGaalen’s comfort on record lies in his consistently successful music-making and not in his singers’ ease in the world.
Ending the album with questioning ambiguity makes sense. “Dear people,” he sings on “Water Brother”, “Are you satisfied with what became of all this chatter?” He poses questions without clear answers, a complication increased by the mystical implications of the lyrics. VanGaalen senses doom – not for the first time – and responds with his bizarre pop. The album begins with him singing, “She wanted the sculpture to be about good living, but it’s tempered by emotion and nausea.” That line continues to resonate throughout the entire record. There’s something light and joyful, even as the lyrics turn dark and the music turns abrasive. And somehow, VanGaalen keeps it all fun, whether he’s stressed out or not.