Review Summary: a dark and direct record from the guy who helped obscure "Public Strain"
Chad VanGaalen comes to us with an air of mystery. His hand in producing Public Strain
helped disguise a record of conflict we only got revealed when the lyrics jumped out of line, and in his career as a composer his music has been no easier to take in. “Willow Tree,” a track that dealt with dark metaphors of death and the afterlife, was played jubilantly on banjo and sung halfway between melancholy and joy: “And when I die / I’ll hang my head beside the willow tree.” It remains perhaps his most beautiful achievement in song writing, but it makes an example of a lot of the quirks found in VanGaalen: he haunts us, dazzles us, jokes with us, and at the end of the day can’t sacrifice any of those things for the other. Hence “Shave My Pussy,” right? It sounds like a joke, but if that track didn’t haunt and dazzle in equal measure, it wouldn’t be the closer to Diaper Island
But while VanGaalen has always been brilliantly diverse like that, able to take “Willow Tree” and make it horrifically bittersweet, what is so confrontational about Diaper Island
(aside from that it’s called Diaper Island
) is his ability to compress his diversity into this one little style. By creating an album that revolves around nothing more than coarse, often tuneless guitar work and those hopeless lyrics, VanGaalen has every song carry the weight of “Heavy Stones” or “Sara,” or even the whacky “Can You Believe it!?” Creating such a tightly-knit record is a simple style a myriad of singer-songwriters have lived by, and in that sense Diaper Island
feels just as uncompromising, if in a different way, as the equally miserable Blood on the Tracks
There’s a lot to be said of the ugliness that plays through Diaper Island
, a record that VanGaalen seems to have designed around angularity. Whereas Infiniheart
and Soft Airplane
sprawled through folk touchstones and warped electronic sounds at the same time, his fourth record feels constantly tied to its gritty atmosphere, able to rock out on “Freedom for a Policeman” with the same tone of bitterness that comes on a track as bare and miserable as “Heavy Stones.” And a little more on “Heavy Stones,” a track that sounds like both a surf-rock b-side for Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” and a tensely obscured Public Strain
number: it takes the angular nature of Diaper Island
and says something that doesn’t even sound sweet in a tragic singer-songwriter way. The lyrics, instead, are shapeless: “lately, you’ve been some other thing.” Strange, then, that lines this vague could contribute to the least mysterious Chad VanGaalen record yet, a record able to look directly to its audience in spite of its burial in guitar noise and lo-fi production.
“Shave My Pussy” stands to be misunderstood as both an outrageous suggestion and a dumb joke, but what it carries with it is the same weight “Heavy Stones" did earlier on: “maybe if I shave my pussy then you’ll love me, baby will you love me? / I’m really feeling ugly." The line is, against all odds, more heart-breaking than hilarious. It’s another declaration like the one on “Sara” to not be left behind, or the lament that he’s been waiting forever on “Wandering Spirits.” Diaper Island
isn’t about taking these moments and pointing at them for how bizarre they are, hence why VanGaalen sings the lines of “Shave My Pussy” so straight-faced, and for that reason his fourth record isn’t ugly itself. It certainly thinks
about ugliness and waits on it with all the honesty with which VanGaalen can deliver lines about his hypothetical pussy, but the music VanGaalen makes isn’t as ugly as it feels it is, is only vague if vagueness can touch you, and is only ghostly if we’re all having the same warped hallucinations our songwriter is. Diaper Island
is a very open wound, and those who listen won’t have to seek it out.