John Vanderslice has built a slow-burning but influential solo career, moving from explicitly political material during the Bush era to mellower, more narrative-driven songs in recent years. On White Wilderness he moves into new territory with a multi-instrumental sound, working with the Magik*Magik Orchestra, the ‘house orchestra’ of his Tiny Telephone studios in San Francisco. Together they’ve recorded an album of at times startling quality, obsessed with wild nature as it threatens to reclaim our minds and our back gardens.
The captivating opening track, ‘Sea Salt’, conjures up an atmosphere of mystery and menace from its first lines: ‘Sun shines on the Gaza Strip, smiles on the back alleys of Madrid, comes off the stone like a burning whip.’ Sun contrast with the snow up on the ridge, from where the song is narrated. An elliptical story unfolds about self-loathing, humiliation and delusion, rooted firmly in the Mediterranean soil. Revelation visits Vanderslice on his rocky, wilderness perch when he realises he is ‘no longer king in a skull-sized castle’.
The song is lyrically adept, enticing the listener hints, imprecations, allusions and brightly burning images that linger in the mind. The White Wilderness sound is subtly orchestrated, using instrumentation to enhance rather than overwhelm the song’s purpose. ‘Sea Salt’ concludes with a lush instrumental chorus, a sweeping tune that offsets the menace with melodrama. The combination of catchy, brass-driven melody and cryptic, strangely memorable lyrics is influenced by Taking Tiger Mountain-era Brian Eno, certainly no bad thing.
Other tracks reproduce the unsettling atmosphere of ‘Sea Salt’. ‘Convict Lake’ recounts a campsite trip apparently induced by inhaling spores from a willow tree, but enhanced following it up with several tabs of acid which cause the singer to ‘fall off the map’. He wakes up a hospital bed tied up ‘like Gulliver tied up with thread’ and observes that ‘you can’t take back what you put in your head’. The enigmatic conclusion leaves it unclear as to whether this is for good or for ill, but the irresistible melody, based around a clarinet riff, seems to summon the listener on a wild journey.
The title song is 3 minutes 52 seconds of cinematic melancholy, with cello and piano plodding like the two unprepared travellers who find themselves stranded on a ‘twisting trail’ that slowly disappears under the snow. The lyrics stop halfway through, and a wailing violin and a dramatic, silent movie piano tell the rest of the story without words, but leave us in little doubt about the ending.
‘The Piano Lesson’ has a tuba riff that is perhaps a little too close to Eno for comfort. However, the song is impressively complex incorporating a classical chorus singing scat counterpoint, woodwind driving the melody and a pizzicato violin finish. The whole effect is surely influenced by Ralph Vaughan Williams’ On Wenlock Edge song cycle, in its atmospheric use of strings.
‘After It Ends’ is a lyrical tour de force, describing the aftermath of unnamed, possible political activity in California involving banners and bombs. It includes the delightful couplet ‘Pack the cordite, wrap the cords right’ and is a masterpiece of understatement, reaching levels of near perfection by saying on what is necessary. The song ends with the singer ‘so hungry, just like I was just born, aching for life’, primed to explode.
‘English Vines’ is a bad neighbour experience told through an extended garden metaphor in which invasive vines coil under the fence, getting where they shouldn’t. They ‘twined their nooses around our lives, branching out maniacally’ and ‘choked our sycamore’. The singer jumps the fence to sort things out, but discovers ‘vines like these root too deep to kill’. The song is both comical and sinister, effortlessly written and leaving enticing gaps for the imagination to fill.
The final song ‘20k’, written with a feel for Robert Wyatt’s ‘Sea Song’, is a submarine dive beneath the waves to revisit Jules Verne. The gentle, watery strings and hallucinatory lyrics make the journey down past the giant squid seem an out-of-body experience which eventually float the singer out into ‘cypress groves, west of Jacksonville’.
White Wilderness is a delight. The songs are pleasingly literate, every word made to count. The Magik*Magik orchestra is used as a subtle tool to modulate mood and fine-tune atmosphere. John Vanderslice has produced an album full of sun, sea, salt and snow, a meditation on the suburban U.S. that lays out its fascination as a place where danger waits to be embraced or rejected.