Alan Palomo’s decision to retreat to the Nordic country of Finland for the recording of his second album as Neon Indian appears to be a no-brainer; lushly textured synth-pop that runs the gamut from exuberant to nocturnal seems completely simpatico with a country whose many chimerical qualities were espoused by Finnish patriarch Jean Sibelius. Encamped in the capital city of Helsinki for a month-long stint during last year’s winter solstice, Palomo embraced the nation’s storied remoteness and icy landscapes as part of the gestation for Era Extraña, a record whose circular atmospheres and wistful melodies play out like the perfect soundtrack to a life lived near the Arctic Circle.
This isn’t exactly Neon Indian’s For Emma, though. Whereas Justin Vernon famously withdrew to his backwoods Wisconsin cabin in order to fully realize his creative impulses, Palomo opted for Finland’s cosmopolitan hub – a city of more than a half million residents. Correspondingly, the songs born out of those travels reflect the alternately reclusive and sprawling moods that are often part and parcel of foreign urban excursions.
Few would argue that Era Extraña boasts a more robust sound than its predecessor, Psychic Chasms, but the record is still imbued with the same amalgamation of dancefloor electronica and 80s dream pop that made Neon Indian’s debut a critic’s highlight of 2009. This time around though, Palomo tapped production a-lister Dave Fridmann to twiddle the knobs, and the former Mercury Rev bassist’s penchant for expansive textures and audio clipping are instantly recognizable.
The album is neatly compartmentalized by a trio of instrumental vignettes. As the opening cut, “Heart: Attack” isn’t really a harbinger of what’s to come; less than a minute in length, the track mainly functions as a fractured potpourri of bristling electronics and stop/start rhythms. Anyone who heard strains of 80s videogame melodies on Psychic Chasms is bound to feel like they’re in familiar territory. More in the tone of a mid-act segue, “Heart: Decay” fuses looped vocal chants, a four-on-the-floor drumbeat, and distressed keyboard melodies. Coming out for the closing act is “Heart: Release,” a boogying little dance number that isn’t all that different from the tunes that get played on house PA systems when the show is over and the crowd starts to make for the exits.
Sandwiched in between these interludes are nine other tunes that showcase Neon Indian’s newly aggrandized approach to songwriting. “Polish Girl” is the disc’s obvious first single, a burnished cocktail of breathy vocals, siren synths, disco beats, and lovelorn lyrics (“Do I still cross your mind / your face still distorts the time”). Though it boasts a similar sort of momentum, “The Blindside Kiss” is the first time listeners can really hear Fridmann’s touch at the boards, with levels pushed so high on the drums and keyboards that the song takes on a bemused ambience. Same goes for “Hex Girlfriend,” though the vocals on this one are more pronounced and allow for Palomo’s lyrics (“Sullen sights always indirect / tired eyes hypnotized by your teenage sect”) to effectively reference the gauzy bedroom nostalgia of the glo-fi movement he helped spawn.
Era Extraña’s middle third features Palomo’s choicest writing, which by no coincidence also harkens back to a time when John Hughes movies were grossing big revenue and Reagan was in the Oval Office. “Fallout” is further evidence of the shift in Palomo’s lyrical preoccupations, trading in the narcotic reveries of Psychic Chasms for lamentations of the heart. The title track smacks of gloomy New Wave forebears such as New Order, but the spiraling layers of synth melody and tweeting samples make it a mesmerizing affair nonetheless. By contrast, “Halogen (I Could Be a Shadow)” imparts a tone of personal resolve and affirmation that would no doubt jibe with a massive festival crowd.
The only misstep on Era Extraña is “Future Sick,” which is a little bit too overblown for its own good. Though the lyrics are right in line with the themes of yearning and loss that populate the record (“All strung out / from all that staring at the future”), the song’s bluesy licks, unceasing repetitions, and chirpy electronic effects come off as a trite gesture.
It’d be a daunting feat for anyone to furnish a respectable sophomore LP after the hype of a debut like Psychic Chasms, but Alan Palomo succeeds here, blessed with an innate ability to temper previous charms with present provocations. The album’s literal title translation connotes high levels of peculiarity and estrangement, but Neon Indian gives those qualities a sublime luster.