John Vanderslice Emerald City

[Barsuk; 2007]

Styles: “sloppy hi-fi” singer/songwriter
Others: The Mountain Goats, Bright Eyes, Sufjan Stevens

Last week, a steam pipe blew in midtown Manhattan causing an underground explosion that briefly transformed New York into the frantic nexus of fear and anxiety it was almost six years ago, on September 11, 2001. This is the power that terrorism has had over the United States — its ability to control discourse. Our government has used it as a pretense to wage war in Iraq and slowly chip away at Americans’ civil rights. You know all of this, and I know you’re sick, like I am, of hearing about 9/11. But the simple truth is that this country has yet to recover from it; this nightmare event will continue to replay itself in our popular consciousness, just as it did last week, until we as a nation learn to solve our problems in a productive way, rather than make them bigger at home and abroad.

And so, while it’s easy to grouse about John Vanderslice writing a second album in which 9/11 and American foreign politics figure prominently (the first was 2005’s Pixel Revolt), his decision to do so is also highly defensible. Named after Baghdad’s infamous Green Zone and inspired largely by the continuing battle of the singer/songwriter’s French girlfriend to obtain an American visa, Emerald City personalizes the effects of recent political events.

“Lightning shot from the sky/ It breathed life into everything,” Vanderslice begins on the album’s first and most gorgeous track, “Kookaburra.” Lightning comes to stand for human progress, and, in retelling the story of 9/11 in high expressionist style, he impresses upon us that although technological innovations have pushed society forward, they have also damned us to worldwide tragedy. The vocals are soft but melancholy, and the imagery is lushly horrific. Vanderslice describes a city sky full of smoke and debris as “white on white/ like streamers of dirty confetti.” Ambivalence about progress becomes a major theme, reappearing as suburban anxiety in “Time to Go” and the longing for solitary wilderness in “The Tower.”

Throughout Emerald City, Vanderslice uses his celebrated producing talent to control feedback and mold it into an instrument as vital as the guitar and piano that are so central to his music. The songs range in sound from desolate, sleepless lullaby (“Tablespoon of Codeine”) to intense, hard rock panic (“White Dove”), but despite the distortion, each sounds clean and controlled. Lyrics are paramount to this release, and the relatively stripped-down sound foregrounds them.

From song to song, Vanderslice gives voice to a host of characters (including himself, speaking about the impact of his girlfriend's Homeland Security woes, on Emerald City’s final song, “Central Booking”), each representing a personal aspect of the United States’ conflicts. Though it may not be difficult to discern the singer’s own politics, he paints the situation as complex, ambiguous, and confusing. In the midst of countless one-sided neo-protest songs by everyone from Bright Eyes to The Dixie Chicks, Vanderslice admits that he doesn’t know who is right or what the solution should be. In a stunning moment of clarity on “The Minaret,” a song sung from the perspective of a soldier, he sings, “I can see both sides/ And it paralyzed me.” He is as bewildered and weary of 9/11 and Iraq as we are. He wishes he didn’t need to keep talking about it, but unfortunately, here it still is, legislating the particulars of our individual lives, and here we all are, with no sense of how to get ourselves out of this mess. Emerald City is the first album I’ve heard that takes on international politics without becoming reductive and, in so doing, captures the anxious, ambivalent tenor of contemporary American life.

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