Review Summary: Turning over the boulder of modern neo-psych and watching the pillbugs and worms
Prior to hearing this album, my only experience with Chad VanGaalen was watching his 2017 animated short film TARBOZ
, a thoroughly interesting (if scattershot) piece of stream-of-consciousness sci-fi loosely following the titular spacefaring scavenger on a series of surreal, semi-coherent escapades and misadventures. It was a fun watch due to its off-the-wall visuals and eerie, eclectic soundtrack, but it seemed to hold its subjects at arm’s length, and there wasn’t a ton there to really dig into as a result, no strong thematic core or engaging characters to invest in. So, since watching it it’s largely lingered in the dustier storage rooms of my mind, something I don’t really think about very often but pull out every once in a blue moon when I’m intoxicated and want to watch something trippy. Fast-forward to a week ago: I was perusing the Sub Pop bandcamp page on a whim, I saw the name “Chad VanGaalen”, and I thought to myself, “Oh, neat, the TARBOZ
guy, I didn’t know he made music”. All the album art had a similarly appealing visual style to the short film, so I queued up his most recent release and pressed play- Hell, it’s a lazy Sunday, I’ve got nothing else going on, what’s the harm in checking it out?
As it turned out, World’s Most Stressed Out Gardener
was not only the most delightful surprise I’ve come across in a very long while, it may just be the best album I’ve heard so far this year. It takes everything I liked about TARBOZ
(including the visual aspect-wow!) and somehow compresses it all into 13 servings of quirky, endlessly fascinating psychedelia, while stripping away the sense of cold distance that made the film a bit hard to connect with. At the core of the album is a gentle yet abiding curiosity about and appreciation for the natural world. This isn’t so much to do with the lyrical themes (though nature does crop up there from time to time) as it is to do with the album’s palette and compositional style. The songs here are unabashedly shaggy, shambling, imperfect and misshapen, wearing their deformities and scrapes with pride. They stumble from a sonic morass, they wriggle about and sniff the air, sometimes they fall apart and reform into something entirely new by the end. Ever since I first heard it, I’ve wanted to listen to this album over and over and over again because, like nature, it feels ever-shifting and impossible to all take in at once. As with any truly great psychedelic music, there are simply too many details to notice everything in only one listen.
The songwriting across the album is impressively diverse, but there are throughlines that emerge if you have the patience to uncover them. VanGaalen primarily interests himself in mining the dichotomy between glitching, whirring electronics and shambolic, muscular folk-rock. Sometimes there’s a distinct sense of the natural and rough-hewn reclaiming the manmade and strictly organized, whether it’s the programmed beats and keyboards of “Nightwaves” piling up into a lumbering, organic rhythm or reverbed acoustic plonks piercing through a haze of gurgling artificial noises on “Nothing is Strange”. Other times, the two co-exist separately and peacefully: the tender “Where is it All Going?” drapes itself in recordings of birdsong before the instrumental “Earth From a Distance” veers into bright, cosmic synthscapes that somehow seem just as vibrant and alive. Of the 13 tracks here, only the droning “Inner Fire” finds itself overextended and less than entirely welcome, and even that song creates a niche for itself that no other song on the album occupies and manages to set itself apart. All the stylistic pivots can feel a bit dizzying at first, but there’s a clear method to the madness underneath it all, and unraveling it proves to be as much of a treat as the colorful, inventive arrangements or the surprisingly sticky melodies scattered throughout the album.
All of this revolves around VanGaalen’s voice, which he manages to contort rather impressively over the course of the tracklist. He filters it to make it all woozy and wobbly (“Nothing is Strange”), multi-tracks himself into a choir or warlocks delivering strange incantations (“Starlight”, “Nightmare Scenario”), and strips it all back to reveal a frail, Thom Yorke-ish croon that can deliver plaintive melancholy (“Where is it All Going?”, “Water Brother”) as well as playful storybook silliness (“Golden Pear”, “Samurai Sword”). His lyrics range from meditative and thoughtful to goofy and irreverent, and generally strike a good balance between weird, crunchy details and more broadly-sketched sentiments that a listener can easily relate to. Of course, it was also mostly recorded during quarantine, so it also makes the requisite allusions to isolation and boredom (“days keep rolling away, like every one is the same / and every step that you take is like you’re forcing the motion” is handily the most heartbreaking line on the album). Despite this, or perhaps even because of it, Gardener
feels free and explorative in a way that could be read as escapist, but it ultimately leaves room for interpretations outside the circumstances of last year, and allows listeners to focus on the wide variety of textures and songwriting styles it offers if they so choose.
For all its oddball sound design and ramshackle writing, World’s Most Stressed Out Gardener
is still, first and foremost, immediately loveable. Its branches may gnarl in all manner of wonky directions, but it always finds its roots in earnest, smart pop songcraft, and flourishes because of it. It’s an immensely creative album by a guy with a clear-cut passion for music and the process of making it, in addition to the patience and good humor to grow that passion into an entire menagerie of strange, wonderful noises. Like his animations, VanGaalen’s music creates a fleshed-out world bursting forth with rubbery, alien life, and after a dozen-plus listens, I’m still eager to explore it even more.