Review Summary: Chillwave? Glo-fi? Nah, throw away the labels, and take Psychic Chasms for what it is: a bubbly, hook-stuffed electro-pop album with 12 supremely well-constructed tracks. (9.0/10)
For us indie snobs, in our never-ending quest to always be “in the know”, Neon Indian is already a megastar. He has been hailed as the next electro-pop phenomenon by some, and bashed as a grating waste of time by others within our little point-and-click music bubble. So, to get the normal music listener up to speed, let’s just get a few things out of the way: the blogosphere’s hype surrounding Neon Indian, the solo project of Texan Alan Palomo, is large enough that some of the skepticism surrounding Psychic Chasms is understandable. Yes, Palomo borrows heavily from 80’s-era, synth-centered pop, while also drenching his music in a lo-fi haze that obscures some of the many sounds he stuffs into Chasms. And yes, Palomo is a leading member of the blogger-created, absurdly-titled genre known as “chillwave”, along with Washed Out, Memory Tapes, and others, all of whom are characterized by this low-key, misty, 80’s-influenced, synth-heavy sound. By stylistic standards, he is not “unique” at all.
Why any of this should be used as criticism against Neon Indian is largely irrelevant. Psychic Chasms is simply an extremely well-constructed album that brings you back to that one summer where all you did was play Mario Kart, inhale things you and your friends shouldn’t have inhaled, and dream about that one cutie that was always just far enough away. Sure, Palomo is only 21 (meaning that he’s more of a 90’s baby than an 80’s one), but the memories he brings back are universal, and he even manages to do this under a multiple-layered, synthy, psychedelic soundscape. The album flies by at just around 30 minutes, which may seem short but allows each song to accentuate its own signature highlights with zero filler surrounding it. Indeed, Psychic Chasms merits multiple listens, as there is much going on in each trippy cut to be found. What this means is that all the labels, all the buzz, all the equal swells of positive and negative feedback surrounding Neon Indian should be thrown to the wayside right next to your Atari 2600, because Psychic Chasms is one of the best trips of the year.
The 1-2 combo of opening interlude “(AM)”, and album highlight “Deadbeat Summer” makes clear what the listener is in for with Chasms: driving, drum-machine beats, upbeat, poppy synths, a little distorted guitar, Galaga-style, 8-bit chirps and bleeps, hazy, droning vocals, and overall 80’s cheese updated for the 21st century. “(AM)” is 25 seconds of nostalgic bliss that descends in a chaos that sounds like a Super Nintendo malfunctioning, leading into “Summer”, which is led by its upbeat bass riff, warbly synths, sprinkled-in Atari effects, and Palomo’s laid-back drone about his own ennui one summer sometime ago. Immediately the tone is set, and it becomes apparent right off the bat that this is an album that makes you feel those lazy days of years past.
“Terminally Chill”, besides having the greatest name of any song released in 2009, has more melodies bubbling underneath its haze than there are to name, with Palomo’s “ah-ah-ah”s dissolving in the listener’s ear (this is without a doubt a headphones album), and wah-wahing guitars that shoot like lasers above the synths that drive beneath it. The title track begins with a dreamy, arpeggiated echo and a gargantuan bass riff, before its needle-sharp, ear-splitting lead kicks in over more glossy synths. “Ephemeral Artery” is a funk beast, with a mean lead riff that sounds like the bad boys are about to hit the dance floor (just listen to it), and an “ahh” from Palomo that is sincerely one of the creepiest on record this past year.
While the synths and 8-bit effects sheen and chirp happily throughout Chasms, Palomo’s lyrics and delivery are usually full of longing, and emotionally distant. “6669 (I don’t know if you know)” is a bass-driven, Daft Punk-sounding bummer that declares “Everything comes apart if you find the strand/ All it takes is a hand”. “Mind, Drips” sees Palomo “oohing” in his best ballad croon, but stays distant due to the indecipherable sample in its chorus. “Should Have Taken Acid With You”, with its adorably dreamy, twinkling lead, comes across as sincere despite the fact that it’s about a missed opportunity to “take his clothes off in the swimming pool” after completely tripping balls. It’s a drag to be sure, but I’m going to guess that Alan got his hands on that acid before Chasms was dropped. Of course, the heartbreak and distance Palomo manages to reach is accentuated by the lo-fi smog he drenches the album in; underneath all the glean is a young man, probably stoned, and a little hungry, who can only muse about what went wrong.
Psychic Chasms is a delicious slice of psychedelic pop songcraft that highlights the best parts of the lo-fi and nostalgic revivalist attitudes that have become so frequent recently. Despite its trippiness, it is surprisingly accessible, relatable and most importantly, fun. Palomo knows how to create a pop song--each song (minus the interludes) follows a rigid verse-chorus-verse-chorus-solo/coda structure--and dresses his tracks with enough warped synths, danceable beats, and catchy hooks to keep Psychic Chasms replay value high. If this is what "chillwave" is, then this is a trend that may stick. Forget being the “Local Joke”, and forget being just retro, Neon Indian is what’s in right now.