After a four-year absence, Todd Gautreau's moody indie-outfit returns, pitting world-weariness against sonic beauty.
Since starting out 20 years ago as Tear Ceremony, Todd Gautreau and his Simulacra label have been turning out thinking persons’ chill-out music on a consistent basis. And for most of that time, Crushed Stars has been Gautreau’s flagship moniker, the one under which he produces mannered, reflective, often pastoral indie pop.
Displaced Sleepers is the first Crushed Stars album in four years, but Gautreau has been busy in the interim. He released music from his ambient project, Tapes and Topographies, as well as Film Student, which was basically Crushed Stars rendered with vintage synths. All along, changes in Gautreau’s musical world have been matters of degrees. Crushed Stars’ last album, Farewell Young Lovers (2013), buttressed the languid ponderousness with some uptempo post-punk. Displaced Sleepers swings back in the other direction, with expansive ambiance filling in the open spaces between the measuredly strummed guitars. It is a gentle swing, for sure, but it’s one for the better. Displaced Sleepers may be the most fully-realized Crushed Stars album yet.
Gautreau’s work has put off a romantic vibe in the past. It’s still there on Displaced Sleepers in the form of the lovely “Celia in Her Constellation” and its sweeping, orchestral chorus, and the whimsical, Cure-like “Palace of Mirrors”. The album’s overall mood, though, is one of world-weariness and almost incredulity at the passing of time and what it has left in its wake. On the opener “Permafrost”, atop a plush midtempo bed of acoustic guitars, Gautreau seems to draw a line between wild-eyed idealism and cold reality, telling an unknown subject, “You still have a lot of living left to do / I still have a lot of disappointment left to live through."
The sentiment may seem oppressive or mopey, but it doesn’t come across that way. Gautreau sounds much too calm, much too comfortable to be very distraught. On Displaced Sleepers’ stunning, six-minute centerpiece, “Sleepwalking”, he says, “I’ll stay with my memories / Or more precisely / How I imagined it would be.” The musical landscape is windswept, spartan, and desolate—but not without warmth, and that’s the key to what makes Displaced Sleepers such a quiet success and, broadly, the appealing aesthetic that runs through all of Gautreau’s music.
Just as Gautreau’s strengths are consistent, though, so are his weaknesses. “Diminished Returns”, for example, is too-aptly named, rather generic indie-pop undone by unappealing, moaning backing vocals. Speaking of vocals, Gautreau’s voice remains a potential sticking point. If unassuming sing-speak doesn’t enhance the music, it often blends right in. At times, though, the American, Texas-based singer sounds like he’s affecting three different accents at once.
It can be a bit distracting. Like Gautreau’s music in general, though, it’s probably not going to change much. Overall, as exemplified by Displaced Sleepers, that’s a good thing.