Every now and then, you really can judge a book by its cover—or, in this case, an album by its cover art. Sometimes, artists truly go out of their way to find artwork that matches the record inside. Blur did it with 13, a breakup album perfectly encapsulated by the dark, impressionistic oil painting of a man looking down in shame. Same goes for Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, a collection of songs that take pride in community and shared ethnicity, depicted on its cover by a group of black men celebrating outside of the White House. Paste’s own Lizzie Manno compiled other such instances in a list last year, including Joni Mitchell’s Blue, My Blood Valentine’s Loveless and a dozen more.
Add Up On High to the list, the newest release from long-running California folk outfit Vetiver, who return with their seventh full-length album and first since early 2015. The record’s cover artwork portrays a mountain presumably in the high deserts of California, where bandleader Andy Cabic recorded the album. The picture has subtle flashes of psychedelic colors: some warm yellows and oranges in the trees, some light blues towards the peak. This isn’t an album trying to make any big statements; instead, it’s meant to convey a feeling, a respite from these fractured times. It sounds like it’s meant to be played while looking at that mountain peak, hundreds of miles away from the problems of the real world.
Up On High also serves as a sort of return-to-roots album for Cabic. Vetiver’s last two albums—2011’s The Errant Charm and 2015’s Complete Strangers—were notable for their liberal use of warm, atmospheric synths and processed drum beats (“Stranger Still” and “Can’t You Tell” marked major departures from their past work). But those flourishes are nowhere to be found on Up On High, a record that puts the spotlight on Cabic’s acoustic guitar. It’s all reminiscent of Vetiver’s Sub Pop debut, 2009’s Tight Knit, full of rustic fingerpicked melodies and Cabic’s smooth, calming voice.
But Up On High doesn’t quite live up to its sonic sibling, a record that served as a sort of breakthrough for the then-San Francisco-based band, hitting #22 on the Billboard Heatseekers albums chart upon its release 10 years ago. While it features very similar instrumentation, it doesn’t paint as clear a picture as its predecessor. “Wouldn’t you love to be out on the rolling sea / With only the sky above you for a roof / What if your friends were there, laugh at all your jokes / And share sweet salt air with you, wouldn’t that be good?” Cabic crooned on Tight Knit opener, setting the stage for an album full of small, lovely moments, from feeling nostalgia for an old house (“Through the Front Door”) or seeing the mirage of a girl in the woods at sunset (“At Forest Edge”).
Up On High is much more vague, more rooted in feeling than in actual specifics. It relies a lot on extremely simple—and at times, lazy—rhyme schemes, like “Give me one more chance / One more song and dance / To prove I care” from lead single “To Who Knows Where,” or “High wire love in the sky / What a thrill to be so high / High wire love, can’t calm down / Lifts your feet right off the ground” from the title track. There’s still a lot of good in the lyrics—the peppy, upbeat California wildfire-referencing “Hold Tight” and the charming album closer “Lost (In Your Eyes),” a song about repeatedly falling back in love with a long-term partner—but they still aren’t as strong as on past releases.
When Pitchfork reviewed The Errant Charm in 2011, contributor Eric Grandy wrote, “Saying a record makes great background music is usually taken as damningly faint praise at best,” before later adding, “The best background music insinuates its way into your foreground, and after about a week with The Errant Charm, a few of its highlights will work their way into a listener’s head.” While Vetiver’s music, always so soothing and calm, has long fought against that “background music” label—one that has, admittedly, been a bit unfairly applied throughout the outfit’s lengthy career—few songs, if any, on Up On High work their way back into the listener’s head after multiple listens. The record is perfectly pleasant, one that tries so hard to soundtrack that feeling of being in nature, maybe stopping to admire the view on a hike in the mountains, but it lacks the lyrical or musical immediacy to truly stand out among the handful of other albums (particularly those in his own back catalogue) that aim to do the exact same.