No one possesses quite a monopoly on eccentricity as Chad VanGaalen does. The somewhat reclusive Calgary singer-songwriter has been churning out quaint and quirky indie rock for well over a decade now and his songs speak volumes about the bizarre and absurdist idea of the human condition. VanGaalen isn’t really a recluse in the traditional sense of the word — he’s not a grizzled old misanthrope who hates the outside world. He’s just a goofy, down-to-earth guy who loves to spend time with his family, animate bizarre cartoons and meticulously craft albums in his basement studio.
The latest of these basement crafts is the wonderfully zany, immaculate pop masterpiece, Shrink Dust, which is undoubtedly his strongest, most cohesive and most genre-defying release to date. Described by VanGaalen as his “country record,” mostly due to his acquisition of a pedal steel, the record is hardly in the same vein as old-timey crooners like Charlie Pride. When VanGaalen says it’s a country record, he means it’s his idea of a country record.
From the wailing space-grunge of lead single, “Where Are You?,” that sees VanGaalen howling the title question in a disembodied yelp backed by krautrock drums and whirling, reverb-soaked synths, to the plaintive folk balladry of “Lila,” the album is VanGaalen painting with an exceptionally diverse sonic palette. Whereas 2011’s Diaper Island was a straight-ahead, acidic rock record, Shrink Dust is a cosmic miasma of animated insanity.
This makes sense, as many of these songs were written to soundtrack VanGaalen’s soon-to-be-released animated short. Songs like the bouncy, almost-childish “Monster” feel like they would be perfect against the backdrop of VanGaalen’s wild animations, with its hilarious didgeridoo-esque rumbling and upbeat, zany strumming. The lyrics are playful and absurdist and it’s a pretty clear indication that VanGaalen has gleaned some childlike inspiration from the bands he’s in with his two daughters; it’s a glimpse into the weird and wonderfully solipsistic little world that he calls home.
However strange a statement it might seem, there is something undeniably country going on here. It’s a kind of plaintive mourning and lovelorn haze that bubbles under the surface of the album, poking through on songs like the stark, acoustic-led opener “Cut Off Both My Hands.”
“Cut off both my hands and threw them in the sand/Watched them swim away from me like a pair of blood crabs/Close my eyes and dream of different skies/Stare straight at the sun and try not to cry for you,” he sings, as if it were a sinister eulogy.
The song sees VanGaalen’s classic fingerpicking and warped, macabre vocals met with a whining, nauseating synth swirl and a wash of woodwinds. But it’s the extremely subtle, seeping pedal steel that helps “Cut Off Both My Hands” take on a world-weary and forlorn vibe, carrying the energy through the entire record.
“Weighted Sin,” a song originally released on a split EP with Xiu Xiu, is re-realized here, featuring gorgeous, weeping pedal steel and haunting, wounded vocals delivered with such spine-tingling sincerity it’s bound to work up a tear or two.
“Prolific” is a word that doesn’t even begin to describe a songwriter like Chad VanGaalen, whose vast vault of B-sides and outtakes far outnumber his album tracks, making Shrink Dust’s cohesiveness all the more stunning. Songs like the glitch-pop opus “Frozen Paradise” sit beautifully alongside the brooding folk of “Evil” or the drone-baroque of “Weird Love,” and no one so much as bats an eyelash. While his earlier albums were wonderfully messy collections of songs threaded together in a beautiful quilt of haphazardness, Shrink Dust is meticulously and carefully crafted down to the smallest detail — a lush and wildly colourful psychedelic opus.
The crowning achievement of Shrink Dust, however, is not the exquisite pedal steel, the careful selection of tracks or the effortless jumps from genre to genre, but VanGaalen’s utter mastery of melodies. The hooks on this record are so massively catchy that they’re buried in the brain for days, causing people to react strangely to you when you’re strolling down the street screaming, “We travel in between worlds,” at the top of your lungs not because you want to, but because you just simply have to.
By Nick Laugher