By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
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Gone, after all, is the dream-pop aesthetic that's drawn the older parts of Hunter's catalog comparisons to recent Top 40 sensation Owl City. Also gone? The soft-spoken, lovelorn lyrics he penned as a 15-year-old who'd soon be scooped up and thrown into the major label fire.
Now, in those elements' place, Hunter's ushering in a far gloomier sound, one that sits comfortably and confidently at the intersection of The Paper Chase, the Pixies, The Secret Machines and The Postal Service. On his MySpace page, Hunter jokingly refers to the new aesthetic as "stadium lo-fi" and well, that actually works just fine: Ancient Electrons, which sees Hunter's self-release on Tuesday, is without a doubt a more grandiose effort than anything he's previously released. More important, it's a sound that suits him.
"It's definitely darker," Hunter admits over the phone. "I feel like I was sort of scared to release some of this stuff before. The feedback I got from the fans and the labels and stuff was that this just wasn't what people wanted from me."
Of course, those fears all came before Hunter's somewhat ugly split with Island Records in the summer of 2008—a breakup that found Hunter somewhat venomously spewing about that state of the music business. ("Music is not dead," he wrote in a blog post at the time, "the industry is.") Those sentiments also came before Hunter disavowed his strict Christian upbringing and publicly became an atheist. And before he changed his performance moniker, too—something Hunter says was inevitable given the darker themes of the songs he found himself starting to write. Take a look at a couple of Ancient Electron's song titles—"North Korea + Kim Jong Il's Fat Fucking Face," "I Am a Ghost," and "New School Shooter," just to name a few—and, well, that's probably proof enough.
"I feel like that's just the direction that my writing has gone," he says. "And it's the direction in which my writing has grown the most. Now I have trouble writing pop songs."
That last part, let's face it, is kind of a big reveal: With Island's support and within the sold-out venues he toured as part of the mall-punk scene in which he was marketed, PlayRadioPlay!'s entire stake rested on the fact that his self-produced songs showcased a serious ear for lush popscapes. But even without much of that same pop shimmer, Hunter's production talents still shine on Ancient Electrons: "A Particularly Long Elevator Shaft," the poppiest song on the new disc, features a break-neck, dance backbeat in its undeniable hook; "You've Been Had (Machine)," meanwhile, finds Hunter flexing his knob-twiddling muscle, adorning the driving anthem with enough blips and bleeps to keep repeat listens rewarding; meanwhile, the rest of the disc is soaked in an ambient, arena-ready sheen that begs listeners to listen to the album at maximum volume, eardrums be damned. All in all, it's a beast of a disc.
So maybe it shouldn't surprise Hunter as much as he says it does that the early comments he's received from the people that he'd assumed would hate the sonic changes—namely, his biggest PlayRadioPlay! fans—have been positive. And though he knows the move to independently release his disc will likely mean smaller sales figures in the long run, Hunter says he isn't necessarily worried about that much. The immediate returns, after all, have been quite good: Already, because of larger pre-sale numbers than he'd anticipated, he's had to order a second pressing of the disc.
"Whatever we sell, I'm already happy with it," he says. "I already feel like this is a success. And I was really worried that I was gonna be let down."