There is a sense throughout that we’re sitting spellbound listening to a storyteller, even though part of our being is never completely sure we follow or even trust the yarns he’s spinning.
“Mixer”, the opening track on Nap Eyes’ second album Thought Rock Fish Scale opens with a description of an indelible memory. Our narrator, voiced by singer Nigel Chapman, is back in high school, at a dance, leaning against the wall of the school gymnasium, watching and thinking. His anxiety and self-doubt turn into kind of an existential questioning, colored by the passing of time. No doubt this teenage boy would be dreaming of being at the mall, but would he also be prepared to articulate a thought like, “the things I have I don’t need / and the things that I want, what’s good in them?” That line of thinking takes over from the initial memory.
Also indelible here is the melody, expressed through almost a monotone that feels no less tuneful for it, and the musical setting, which goes the ‘50s dream-guitars route, syncing up nicely both with the dance nights of our collective imagination and with the ambiguity and uncertainty of the school-dance memory and the questions floating around it.
It isn’t fair to call Chapman’s voice a monotone, actually, as it is quite expressive and in tune with the music, which places emphasis on melodic guitars. It’s reminiscent of Lou Reed as his most deadpan, but also of Reed’s descendants: Jonathan Richman, Dean Wareham, Jeffrey Lewis. The music, also, has a lot of that Velvet Underground/Luna dream-in-the-city tone. “Lion in Chains” instantly sounds like a particular Luna song which means it also immediately sounds like a few different Velvet songs. There are also doses of starry-eyed mysticism and Dylan-esque word density within a general post-‘90s indie-guitar-rock climate. “Slacker rock” by musical connotation, not by actual slackerdom; Chapman is a heavy thinker, and music is chockfull of ideas. As pleasurable as everything about Nap Eyes music is, it’s also challenging, provocative.
For all the charm, beauty and low-key energy the band’s musical approach provides, the presentation consistently foregrounds Chapman’s voice and lyrics. The music is lovely; the words he sings are confusing, beguiling, entrancing, poetic and occasionally emotional. He sometimes seems to be guiding us through explorations that are philosophical, scientific and literary – focused on knowing and being, on the makeup of our brains and bodies. What makes that not dry is the music, sure, but also the surprise factor in the songs. We don’t know where these songs are taking us.
On “Alaskan Shake”, when a few minutes in, after some nature scenes and visceral transportation, he has us thinking about grandparents and great-uncles and great-grandparents, it’s surprisingly touching though we’re not exactly sure just what happened, to him or us. Then he’s telling us “stand up little boys and be peaceful / stand up little girls and be peaceful” and remembering how warm-hearted his “old great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother-mother-mother-mother-mother-mother” was. Nevermind the narrative logic there; the feeling is awe and a deep sense of connection.
There’s something similarly epic going on with “Lion in Chains”, which starts again with memory of earlier times, but in six or so minutes traverses more ground than I can hope to summarize, or even keep account of. Much of the drama is internal – a flood of tears is held back by anxiety, there’s an image of a lion in chains hanging over us all.
There is a sense throughout that we’re sitting spellbound listening to a storyteller – one with the extra trick of syncing his stories up with melody and atmosphere – even though part of our being is never completely sure we follow or even trust the yarns he’s spinning. That the last song is titled “Trust” seems significant. “I know you don’t trust me / I got some things I need to tell you anyway,” he sings to us at the end. He insists we need to trust him, and repeats it, fixates on it, until someone turns a knob or button and fades him out, and he’s gone. He’s being pulled off stage with the proverbial hook – but by who? The universe, our subconscious minds?