John Vanderslice – Time Travel is Lonely

John Vanderslice
Time Travel is Lonely

Though it is admittedly rare that a concept album truly tells a cohesive story, with each song unfolding as a chapter, the idea of unifying themes over the course of a set of songs is undeniably attractive. Even though the nearly non-existent storylines of albums like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band almost seemed like an elaborate excuse for the Beatles to wear funny looking uniforms and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars just another reason for David Bowie to put on makeup, concept albums ultimately allow the artists to make their music appear in more dimensions than the obvious songs on the album. In short, concept albums are the realm of the artist for whom an album’s worth of songs will not do. For John Vanderslice, an album’s worth of songs has never been enough.
It’s likely that Vanderslice tires of the words “indie prankster” being attached to his name, as the media storm generated by the “Bill Gates Must Die” fiasco firmly encased him as independent rock’s foremost hoax architect, but those familiar with him know that his architectural skills translate into the building of intricate pop songs just as frequently. The same mind that saw the obvious potential for media manipulation surrounding the world’s most visible billionaire has now given us Time Travel is Lonely, an album built around the slow mental decline captured in the correspondence of Vanderslice’s brother Jesse, a geologist and programmer snowbound on a U.S. relay station in Antarctica. While the songs don’t always seem to line up with the entries, nine of which are included in the liner notes, as concept albums go, this storyline is relatively easy to follow.
Opening with the lonely off-kilter acoustic guitar lines, humming Moog, and simple percussion of “You Were My Fiji,” the recurring themes of loss and change are established. Recalling a shared kiss on the carpet of an unfurnished apartment, the narrator confesses his affection and disillusion with his lover, going on to describe a whale attack that scatters him and his shipmates into the sea. Though these scenes don’t seem to correlate with the arc of the story, images of whaler camps and skinned raccoons follow in the gliding “Keep the Dream Alive,” complete with mariachi-like trumpet, bubbling synths and jangly tambourines. Is this more metaphorical emotional fallout from his failed relationship or is Jesse lost in dreams of joining a band of whalers? Could this even be a veiled reference to MK Ultra’s (Vanderslice’s former band) breakup? At any rate, three songs into the album, it becomes very apparent, with the complex patchwork of sounds and multiple melody lines of “Little Boy Lost,” that Vanderslice has moved beyond the still-transitional indie rock sound of Mass Suicide Occult Figurines to pursue a more sophisticated pop muse.
Recounting his failed marriage and the weathered vacancy of his old Maine residence in “My Old Flame,” the narrator is heard to claim “everything has changed for the best” over picked acoustic guitar and strings, though Vanderslice’s quivering delivery undermines any confidence in the statement. By the time the title track rolls around, the lyrics of which are written by Jesse after his computer is crippled by the I.Love.You. virus and takes out his only connection to the outside world, it becomes apparent that his mental collapse is waiting just outside the cabin door. Possibly the disc’s standout track, “Time Travel is Lonely” features more than a little Nigel Godrich-worthy production, with gorgeous electric piano and swirling melodies combining to form a spine-tingling winter lullaby. Dementia never sounded so good.
The narrator goes on to torment himself over the killing of a fly, eventually seeing a similar futility in his own existence in the jaunty piano-driven “If I Live Or If I Die.” As the Antarctic winter shuts out all but a few hours of sun, the mid-tempo “Emma Pearl” finds Jesse losing the perception of “the line between solid ground and sea” and ponders smashing the relay station’s satellite at the prompting of a little girl from a neighboring base. The pulsing beats and synths of “Do You Remember?” are colored with surreal references to the man who stepped in front of the Tiananmen Square tanks having actually escaped to McLean, Virginia, apparently the product of Jesse’s isolated ponderings. Finally, submerging himself in childhood memories, Jesse charges out into the snow to rescue the Russian submarine Kursk’s drowned passengers when he can no longer stand the sounds of their tapping on the hull, as the album closes with the pensive interweaving of piano, organ, and low-key percussion in “Gainesville, Florida.”
While the pop sensibilities of Time Travel is Lonely are certainly more obscure and less accessible than the more giddy thrills of Mass Suicide Occult Figurines, as there are really no “Speed Labs” or “Bill Gates Must Die” here, Vanderslice has ultimately emerged with a more rewarding record in tow. As with the best concept albums, Vanderslice allows just enough ambiguity that the listener has to fill in the empty space for him or herself to actively participate in the animation of the characters created. Whether seen as a critique on society’s over reliance on internet affection or simply a clever metaphor linking polar madness to bi-polar disorder, John Vanderslice has succeeded in creating nearly obligatory participatory art.