John Vanderslice – Life and Death of an American Fourtracker

John Vanderslice
Life and Death of an American Fourtracker

As a child, I always hated putting together puzzles. The frustration and monotony of looking for that one piece that fits together with one other piece was just too much for my fragile pre-adolescent psyche, and I soon realized that my mind just wasn’t wired for problem solving. Considering that many consider problem solving the true mark of intelligence, this revelation is somewhat unsettling to me. Still, I love complex pop music, which at its best is truly akin to putting together a giant sonic puzzle for its authors. Knowing which musical pieces will fit perfectly beside other, often very dissimilar, musical pieces is the mark of true musical genius. Of course, this process is made all the more difficult by the fact that musical puzzle-solving offers no visual component to aid in finding just which pieces obviously lock into each other, just as if one were putting together a giant blank puzzle with pieces that are all the same shape. Over the course of two solo albums, and this, his third, John Vanderslice is quickly establishing himself as one of indie rock’s true master puzzle makers.
Another concept album, this time cataloguing the collapsing psyche of an aspiring songwriter instead of an ice-bound researcher, Vanderslice is quickly becoming this generation’s Pink Floyd in his ability to write songs about going off your nut. Opening with the oh-so-lush “Fiend in a Cloud” with strings and a chorus of soothing la-la-la’s, the perfectly mournful melody creates the environment for things to turn sour. In “Me and My 424” they do just that, as cracks in the psychological armor are spotted in a song that is itself an almost erotic tribute to a four-track recorder (who else would be clever enough to write a song like that?). Just as with his other releases, Vanderslice makes albums of an intricate quality usually reserved for those with large funds for recording or who happen to own their own studio (Vanderslice is in the later category with his Tiny Telephone recording studio). One only needs to take in the audio massage of “Interlude #4,” a gorgeously unfolding mélange of pedal steel guitar and a variety of squeaks and squawks, or the overwhelmingly thunderous drums and caressing horns of “The Mansion” to see that the work is carefully crafted chaos.
As with the greatest of pop auteurs, Vanderslice never allows the listener to have even the slightest idea which direction each song is currently unraveling. Like the ersatz Jeff Mangum, Vanderslice loves to deliver bluntly poetic statements of the sort rarely heard in contemporary music. “You know that guy that stole your girlfriend in the summer of 95? / He’s going to die” he sings in “Nikki Oh Nikki,” a song whose lyrics were actually penned by the Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle but sound perfect coming out of Vanderslice’s mouth. Later in the same song, he offers “you know her name, it’s in your brain like a tumor” before making a rather unsettlingly sweet chorus out of “We’re going to die.” What’s more, as he becomes an even better songwriter, his hooks get even stronger. Take the absolutely infectious opening acoustic guitar strums of the all-too-brief “Greyhound” or the old school Brill Building groove of “Cool Purple Mist” and you’ll see a songwriter who doesn’t have too many more tricks to master before reaching indie rock nirvana.
If intelligence truly is measured by one’s ability to solve problems, John Vanderslice is a bonafide genius. If there were any doubts about his being one of the only remaining sure bets in the indie-rock game, they have been obliterated with this release. Every track is a simply resplendent sculpture in pop songcraft, with voice, lyric, and melody all wrapped up with a neat aesthetic bow. As always, all of his sonic pieces fit together into one great indie-pop tapestry that can only be truly appreciated by standing back and looking at the totality of the intricate handiwork. Viewing Life and Death of An American Fourtracker from a distance will reveal a work that fits together perfectly though looks a little different every time you look at it, as you can view it from a multitude of angles, each giving the listener a new perspective. And we should all sleep a little better knowing that he has gone to all the trouble of putting it together for us so we don’t have to.