On John Vanderslice's second LP, Time Travel Is Lonely, printed lyrics have been replaced with a series of handwritten letters from Jesse, our strange protagonist who is trapped in Antarctica, lost without GPS coordinates or Internet access. After a few listens, it becomes clear that each of these lonely and reflective missives corresponds to a song on the album, and each brief song in turn holds its own contemplative redemption. So, yeah, it's a clever pop record, but free from that annoying, self-aware irony (no, really).
Recorded at Tiny Telephone, Vanderslice's own studio, Time Travel shows the artist's deft production skills, both technically and conceptually, and makes the most of his material, giving it an off-the-cuff, organic character. Vanderslice's spacious arrangements are quirky and engaging; drums often filter in and out of the mix at whim, usually abandoned altogether midsong. Vintage keyboards buzz and hiccup, while harpsichords dominate classically based interludes. With an acidic, in-your-face voice, Vanderslice delivers a wealth of ornate and cryptic lyrics while still maintaining an emotional rawness. He strives for a classical sense of romanticism, borrowing unashamedly from the likes of William Blake and J.S. Bach for material.
The album's opener, "You Were My Fiji," demonstrates all of these elements: a strained vocal rant about an ex who's a "stripper now in New Orleans" set against simple, interlocking acoustic guitar lines, a Moog synthesizer and some handclaps. When the Moog gets to swelling and Vanderslice strains out, "Those hours with you/They only expand to you/You were my Fiji/Oh believe me/But I fell in love with somebody else's sand/Somebody else's dry land," all the seemingly off-kilter bits fall into place, and the soaring begins--and then the song abruptly ends. But it's the modernizing of the Robert Lowell poem "My Old Flame" that acts as the album's physical and emotional centerpiece. Lamenting a visit to the home where he once lived with his ex-wife, our narrator is stunned by how much the place has changed: "With our videos and records/Our old house/Oh everything's changed/Bleached out and aired/IKEA'ed and swept bare/Poor ghost of love." With religious intensity he drops the laments at the end, breaking down the song to a steel drum-mellotron melody that slowly fades away. These kinds of intense reflections make up the bulk of Time Travel Is Lonely, making it hard to resist for those who swoon easily.