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John Vanderslice:: Emerald City (Album Review)

Emerald City finds John Vanderslice moving in a more organic direction, relying less on electronic studio trickery and more on the weight of lyrics in his songs, in the vein of the Decemberists or Neutral Milk Hotel. According to a press statement by Barsuk Records, Emerald City was supposedly written as John Vanderslice dealt with legal issues due to an incident where his Parisian girlfriend’s visa immigration was rejected by US Immigration. Of course, with Vanderslice it’s hard to know the difference between fact and fiction. (He cried wolf once before when he told the press that Bill Gates was suing him because of his song “Bill Gates Must Die,” and his lyrics are often buried so deep beneath layers of mixed metaphor that it’s more likely about something else entirely — or then again, it could be about nothing in particular.) That’s the beauty of Vanderslice’s music. With good art, you can take away many different meanings depending on your perspective. There is a definite reoccurring theme that alludes to events of 9-11, with imagery of towers disappearing in a cloud of white smoke, but the stories are convoluted enough that it’s difficult to know positively the concept of the record. It seems to be a tale of a man who destroys the Chrysler Towers in an act of terrorism. Afterwards, the protagonist loses the police in a parade and flees to a new home where he is tormented by paranoia and eventually leaves the country to escape. He starts taking codeine to help ease his mind, but is constantly haunted by memories of the past; a neighbor bemoans the loss of her daughter in the war, a tarot card reveals a picture of a burning tower on it, and tension builds and eventually drives the main character further into seclusion where he is consumed by loneliness. In the last song (the beautifully moody, electric piano based “Central Booking”), he receives a letter from his former lover but decides not to open it for fear of giving away his secret location. Of course this take on the content is merely one interpretation of the songs’ meanings and if the press statement explains Vanderslice’s motivations truthfully, the record is actually an autobiographical love story dedicated to a girl in France. It’s doubtfully that simple, especially considering that his last four albums were so character-driven, but it’s entirely plausible. Like Pixel Revolt his melodies are still strong and unpredictable, at times sounding like Matthew Sweet performing a ballad by Neil Young, and the production is still huge and full, although audiophiles may be disturbed by the overdriven acoustic guitars on certain songs that give an unnerving sensation of blown speaker cones. It’s a forgivable stylistic decision, and doesn’t detract much from the overall solidarity of the disc, which reiterates once again that Vanderslice is holding the torch as one of indie-rock’s most imaginative songwriters.