There was always something that set the Dream Syndicate apart from their Paisley Underground contemporaries. Whereas the Bangles and the Three O’Clock happily donned paisley shirts and Byrds haircuts and jangled in a most appealing way, the Dream Syndicate always had something of the night about them. They looked like the P.U. band most likely to drink all liquor from the backstage rider and leave without saying “thank you”. That aggressive streak extended into their performances and gave a certain pissed off edge to a genre of music that was generally as comfortable as an old fringed buckskin jacket. When they got back together in 2017 to cut the majestic How Do I Find Myself Here LP, that vitriol was still very much in place. Old age has neither slowed them down or softened their edges, and despite its Californian, new age title, 2020’s The Universe Inside manages to be both luxurious and gritty. How so?
The Universe Inside is not a typical Dream Syndicate release. The verse/chorus structure has been neatly sidestepped in favor of a free-wheeling, improvised approach. Although no strangers to stretching out songs like “John Coltrane Stereo Blues” into 15- to 20-minute explorations of intensity, generally, they kept their work lean and taut. Get in quick, hit hard, and do it again. For this release, the engineer hit “record”, and the band played until they fell over, exhausted. The resulting spontaneous tangle of noise was then wrangled into shape, and that’s what you hear. The shortest tune is 7:36, and the longest is 20:27. It’s like punk rock never happened, but The Universe Inside snarls and sneers harder than almost anything you would have heard in 1977.
“The Regulator”, the opening track, is a radio-unfriendly 20-plus minutes in length. Incredibly, it manages to hold your attention from 00:00 to 20:27, easily. Bassist Mark Walton stamps on his fuzz pedal and plows through the blissed-out, bad trip psychedelics of guitarists Steve Wynn and Jason Victor while Chris Cacavas, an escapee from Green on Red, throws washes of organ behind everyone. If that wasn’t enough, the vocal sounds like something that Tom Waits would have rejected for being too ominous and weird. “Have you heard?” repeats Wynn, making it sound more like a threat than a question.
If you’re looking for something that at least half-resembles a typical Dream Syndicate tune, the closest you’re likely to get on this record is “Apropos of Nothing”. But in their current, wilfully perverse mindset, it owes more to the work of their contemporaries the Rain Parade than most of anything in their back catalogue. The repetitive riff and the droning guitars have more than a whiff of the early ’80s West Coast, psychedelia revival, and in no way, is that a bad thing.
The Universe Inside is a tasty cocktail of jazz fusion, krautrock, progressive rock, and psychedelia that manages to combine Ravi Shankar with the MC5. “Dusting off the Rust” sounds like one of those polite, early ’70s, British jazz-rock bands like Soft Machine, but they’re backed by members of Neu! and Quicksilver Messenger Service. At one point on this tune, someone turns up the echo so much that everything starts repeating over everything else, but just on the edge of chaos, the motorik groove re-establishes itself, and off they go again. It’s dazzling.
It’s only the last track, “The Slowest Rendition”, which fails to hold your attention. Wynn’s vocal line seems weirdly out of place here, and despite all of the things that made the previous four pieces sound great, also being in place here, this tune lacks the edge and the attention to the groove that makes the bulk of this record so good. It’s almost saved by its lovely sax and Fender Rhodes coda. But not quite.
The Universe Inside is not some Metal Machine Music style, highbrow exercise in sarcasm and disrespect, it’s a powerful piece of contemporary music which still manages to sit logically in the band’s oeuvre. Whether this record was planned from the start or was just a neat way to get past writer’s block, we may never know. We should just be happy that it’s here.