“I wanted to capture every feeling I’m feeling. I don’t want to focus on anything special, I want it to be a complete picture. Of course I have failed in that sense, as in many others. But whatever you know?”
– Eric Berglund on Wonderland
Art can be whatever it fucking wants. There’s no point parsing the semiotics of any particular creation, because as long as you’re asking yourself whether or not something succeeds as art, the answer is always going to be “Of course it does” — or even closer to the heart of the truth, “Who are you to be the arbiter of such things?”
The inverse doesn’t hold up nearly as well. If Eric Berglund, once half of The Tough Alliance and now the whole of ceo, thinks his new album is a failure, how can I argue otherwise? If you read the whole of that excerpted interview, it becomes apparent that Berglund loves Wonderland tremendously, despite his utter inability to articulate the record’s themes or his artistic intentions. There’s something honest, or at least relatable, in the relationship between those two factors. Berglund describes his world as one “where everything flows. Where individuals are nothing but illusions. Where troubles are cute and joy has no opposite.” It is reasonable to expect that the depiction of this purview to be glossy, messy, and blurred. We have the right to claim triumph through failure, not merely in regards to a slacker’s justifications, but also the overachiever’s hopeless and impossible ambition. Who’s to say that the snake can’t claim its own tail as fair game?
For Berglund, there’s still the matter of depiction, the colors on his palette, the combinations on the canvas. Let’s mix metaphors for a second, because that’s the kind of album that Wonderland is or wants to be. Do you remember drawing with crayons as a child? Did you ever pile on the colors until they all blended into a dense, dark brown muddle? And when you scratched the surface with your finger nails, were you ever delighted to see the vibrant spectrum hiding beneath the drab surface? That discovery was/is Wonderland.
The pile-it-all-on, kitchen-sink approach is rewarding and frustrating in almost equal proportions. Berglund tries so many things that inevitably something will work and something won’t. If we’re thinking of Wonderland as a sink, then let’s extend the metaphor further: the best moments are those when you notice the Coriolis effect, those moments when you become aware of repetitions of melodies and rhythms, circling the drain and coming right back ‘round again. In any case, elements such as the syncopated, plasticine percussion on “Ultrakaos” and the title track, as well as the screw-chop hooks on “Whorehouse” and “OMG” work better than the pixelated blur of Squaresoft EXP-grinding interludes like “jUjU” and “In A Bubble On A Stream.” But returning to this review’s central question: if an artist is trying to represent the broadest range of experience, then who am I to be the judge of what does and doesn’t work? How could a person even do such a thing?
There is so much happening here that words only scratch the surface. Let’s talk about the manic tone of the record. The tangible current of anger and aggression that simmers beneath Wonderland’s ecstatic exterior is invigorating, though lacking in the coarse, punkish certitude of the music Berglund made with The Tough Alliance. Maybe this is what it means to get older, to mature: you have never seen more of the world than you do in this eternal present, yet moving forward, you make ever less sense of it. It’s difficult to be angry — or more to the point, to be confident enough in your convictions to feel the fiery, righteous clarity of anger — when everything and nothing makes sense to you.
Wonderland isn’t a very good album, but it more than succeeds at being a mess. Is this meant to be a Marxist critique of capitalism, or is it a maximalist celebration of the same? I’d argue that it’s both, but much like Berglund, I have too strong a sense of the fact that I do not understand what it all means.
Berglund gets the final word in all of this rhetorical back and forth. The last thing you hear on Wonderland is a snippet of a voice, answering an unasked question: “Who knows, dude.” Couldn’t have said it better myself.