Review Summary: The yacht’s sprung a leak
It’s often that V
’s charm makes it feel like its going to shape up to be a good album, against the odds. The thick, wobbly haze created by this chewy pastiche of 80s yacht rock by way of 60s psych-pop, coupled with its fuzzy, worn-cassette lo-fi aesthetic certainly has a certain charisma to it, there’s a loose, jammy quality to the way the songs and solos are structured that makes it feel like a bootleg recording of some undeservedly forgotten 80s resort band, and the whole is plopped so neatly into the aesthetic of VCR static, tiki kitsch and neon that it feels like it’s going to shape up to be something deeper than it appears on the surface. Unfortunately, everything it has to offer is apparent well before the end of the album, and what that is amounts to is significantly less than it should be. V, for all its good ideas and vibes and moments where everything clicks just beautifully, well, it ends up being half-baked and threadbare, its good ideas stifled by a refusal to mold them into something with a little bit of solidity, a little bit of refinement.
It's no small task Ruben Nielson’s committed to in trying to maintain this aesthetic across an entire album, and it’s pretty clear that with a little more patience and a greater willingness to use a hook effectively, that this could have been a fine, breezy piece of psych-pop. There are many moments that are an immediate, musical delight, and that when taken through his lo-fi lens are softened and shellacked with a nostalgic patina that wouldn’t have existed if he’d played the 80s yacht rock production tropes straight. The gleaming funk edges that peep up over the gunwales here and there, the moments of lushness hearkening to ELO and the hooks that do an incredible job emulating the vibes of the era, are all ingredients that, when paired with that lo-fi wooziness, combine into a disorienting, intoxicated atmosphere that grasps handily the alienated, dizzy pleasure of a drunken stumble through a resort hotel. No doubt Nielson knows how to write a hook, as demonstrated many times throughout the album. And no doubt Nielson knows how to effectively create an atmosphere.
But, and here’s another sticking point aside from the undercooked songwriting, what Nielson’s trying to emulate here is essentially mediocrity, the kind of glossy anemia that reeks of Aquanet and Calvin Klein, the plundering and tranquilizing of R&B and funk into something slick, frail and watery. If he’d had it in mind that his production choices were elevating the style to something greater (which here and there they very much do), if that dusty layer of fuzz and hiss was adding an ethereal nostalgia to the album, then the whole project ultimately rings false, like someone made a fake demo of a fake band with a tape recorder and left it in someone’s attic to find. There’s no sense that there’s an undeservedly obscured pop masterpiece underneath all this dust and haze, no sense of loss and rediscovery that might have come with an album that had paid a little bit more attention to the craft of pop songwriting and paired with this production style. And conversely, if Nielson had stripped the pop framework entirely and devoted an entire album to just vibes
, a kind of vaporwave, retro-tech exploration of mood and color, as he does on the instrumental The Widow, he might have found greater success as well. As it is, there’s not enough pull in either direction to make V
really mean anything other than a tribute to a bygone era that feels underdeveloped and over-consciously nostalgic.
So if what V ultimately offers is hazy vibes and a sense of nostalgia that ultimately rings false, its still something that’s worth dipping into for a smoke sesh or two, especially if one’s willing to bring their own suspension of disbelief to the table for an hour or so. Much of the album can just be allowed to drift by, harmless and inoffensive, and when some impeccable tribute to the forgotten Police-worshipers of yesteryear comes drifting across the speakers, just smile along to what this is: a pleasure that is often immediate, purged of being guilty by its knowing irony and wistful temperament. Just don’t expect, when the vibes wear off, that this is going to stick around with any real sense of meaning.