John Vanderslice nearly died. In late 2013, the songwriter was touring Ohio in a van when, at 75 miles an hour, the vehicle’s driver narrowly avoided smashing into a stopped car on the highway.
It was terrifying—so much so that Vanderslice, who’s also built a reputation as a widely sought-after producer and studio proprietor, swore off touring and making solo records. This was a sizable blow to Vanderslice’s fans, who revere his imaginative songwriting and unusual recording approach, which is sometimes described as “sloppy hi-fi”: a juxtaposition of state-of-the-art analog equipment with an affinity for distortion, compression, and deliberate tape damage. But who could blame the guy? He had released 10 consistently excellent albums in less than 15 years, and played hundreds of shows. “I was like, I’m done,” Vanderslice told the New Yorker the following year. “I don’t want to die in a van. It wasn’t sad, it wasn’t celebratory. It was just like, eh, I had a good run.” For half a decade, Vanderslice hunkered down, establishing a new Oakland outpost of his Bay Area studio, Tiny Telephone, and recording everybody from Into It. Over It to Sleater-Kinney. In interviews, he stated he was done making his own records.
All of which is to say, the sheer existence of The Cedars, Vanderslice’s dread-drenched 11th album, seems born out of urgency more than the rote two-year album schedule. Of course, “urgency” is a relative term when you work as slowly as Vanderslice does. The Cedars took more than nine months to complete. (Such is the luxury of owning your own studio.) On first listen, there are the trademark eccentricities of Vanderslice’s work: double-tracked vocals, peculiar arrangements that sound both meticulous and damaged, trippy interludes, lyrical references to West Coast geography, a song titled after an art film (see: “Enter the Void”—the man is a known cinephile).
But, unless you were unusually perturbed by the distorted acoustic guitars of 2007’s Emerald City, The Cedars is saturated in the most abrasive textures of Vanderslice’s career. When opening cut “Utah and the Sky Over Utah” powers to life, the first thing you hear is a discordant buzz that sounds like a cable being plugged into a malfunctioning electrical outlet. Evidently inspired by the literal wilderness of The Cedars, a “serpentine canyon” in rural West Sonoma where Vanderslice owns some land and wrote much of the material, these songs use yawning synths and heady drum triggering to convey near-constant dislocation. Guitars are minimized. In place, the album credits chronicle an impressive grabbag of vintage synthesizers: Korg MS-20, Moog IIIC, ARP Odyssey, ARP 2600 and Minimoog.
You may miss the analog warmth of, say, 2005’s blog-era classic Pixel Revolt, and that’s reasonable. Vanderslice, to his credit, is not much interested in replicating past achievements. (Lately he’s more interested in JPEGMAFIA than his indie-rock peers anyway.) This material, especially the opening trifecta (including “Will Call,” an uneasy cut-and-paste composition about letting go of one’s toxic attachments) is jittery and fragmented. That approach is sometimes quite rewarding; in the case of “151 Rum,” it risks spoiling a decent song with an arrangement that gurgles and squawks like some terrible bird. If you listen with headphones, “-EXT” is nearly as queasy.
But it’s the singer’s gene for vulnerability that centers his work, as always. In a recent FADER interview, he described how he fell into a lengthy depression after his mother died in 2017. His grief mingled with unresolved regrets. Accordingly, “there’s a lot of nihilism and regret on the record,” he said. There is also a resonant sense of loss, not just death but also disappearance, disconnection, unexplained departure. On a particularly affecting song called “Spectral Dawn,” Vanderslice concocts a woozy elegy to those who’ve been “swallowed up by the spectral dawn,” the mysteries of which seem to be embodied by the song’s ghostly falsetto choir. The record’s liner notes, meanwhile, contain a moving dedication to Vanderslice’s mom.
Grief, addiction, capitalism, regret—it’s all wrapped up in Vanderslice’s wilderness mutterings. Drugs, and the often disturbing relationships humans have with them, are a recurring motif in the songwriter’s work. (I am partial to 2002’s “Amitriptyline,” a strangely poignant manifesto from a narrator required to go on antidepressants “by order of the Pasadena court.”) Here we get “Oral History of Silk Road 1,” a paranoid fantasy seemingly inspired by the 2013 bust of the dark-web drug marketplace, and “I’ll Wait For You,” one of those truly dark love songs of note: Vanderslice takes the guise of a junkie separated from his partner by court-ordered drug lockup, and yet warning her that he’ll bounce if she gets clean. “Don’t bring home that twelve-step shit,” he snarls. (Such a romantic!) Brash, clanging percussion contributes to the track’s disturbing edge. Vanderslice knows he’s got a sick imagination. It’s a treat to find him putting it to use in service of songwriting again after all these years.