As Skyway Man, songwriter James Wallace likes to take flight. His psychedelia wanders everywhere, preferring not to stick strictly to this earth. The World Only Ends When You Die from 2020 worked as a concept album travelogue that kept a steady eye on the skies for UFOs. Now, he returns from space (sort of) to travel to a real past and an imagined future, all with his epic cosmic sensibility and extraterrestrial ideas. When Flight of the Long Distance Healer lands, it settles into a solid retro-pop vibe full of brightness and melody, but some of the album disappears into stargazing.
The album’s concept arose after Wallace and a friend discovered a box of letters from the late 1980s to the early 1990s from Dr. James Cyr to a woman named Kate. The letters deal with a spirituality based on an awareness of aliens, spinning out otherworldly philosophy and theology. Depending on your grounding, the concept becomes a welcome bit of open-minded creativity or simply a strange foray; likely listeners probably won’t be put off by the content, much of which could function as secondary to the music anyway.
The tunes blend psychedelic folk with 1960s British influence and more spaced-out influences like the Flaming Lips. The music always suits. As Skyway Man explores alternate ideas, he does so with a brightness that makes the thinking optimistic rather than simply esoteric. The accessible songs make for capable guides into the alien ideology. With the welcoming setting, Wallace can turn more reflective, trying to put regular life in a new perspective, asking what these letters mean.
Unfortunately, the haze tends to blur together. Flight of the Long Distance Healer starts with focus. “The Holding On” builds with a steady linearity, developing its melody as it adds components. The album grooves. If Big Pink had been built on Mars, perhaps music in this line would have been the result. The energy holds up through the first two-thirds of the record, peaking with “Long Distance Healer”. That cut lets Skyway Man question his experiences as his search for truth leads him to more questions, worries about deception, and a possible source of knowledge. As the synths push the songs toward space, the rest of the instruments roar back with their own meaning.
After that point, though, the LP falls into a muddle. What began as a push on the doors of perception ends with a foggy high. Wallace doesn’t play enough with dynamics and tempo across the album, so while each song may work on its own, the collection begins to wear just a bit before its end. It never sours, but can’t maintain its energy, possibly suffering from the wait for such abstract musings and the music that follows. It’s an ambitious project, and Skyway Man continues to be worth watching, but this exploration doesn’t quite find all the treasure it seeks.