Chad VanGaalen - Shrink Dust | Album Review | By Volume

Understand that I am only as he made me: a faithful servant to all of the noise, all of the lights, all of the flashing in my head. Laura Stevenson - Wheel
Shrink Dust

Chad VanGaalen

Shrink Dust

The various sides of VanGaalen coalesce into a beautiful monster of an album.

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Author: on April 24, 2014
Sub Pop

When Alberta’s Chad VanGaalen sat down with Southern Souls’ Andrew Patterson earlier this year in Halifax, he revealed certain nuances that help to shape my thoughts on his newest effort, Shrink Dust. While talking about children and the enigma of being a parent, VanGaalen felt his role somewhat flippantly absurd, humorously defining a sort of character entanglement: “I’m not really good at discipline, which is why I prayed for girls. I’m more of a stoner goofball, so it’s hard for me to take myself seriously. Like when I have to say ‘Don’t take those napkins and soak them in water…’, in the back of my mind I’m thinking: ‘That’s actually kind of awesome. But I have to be that guy now.'” This balance between impulsive desires for immaturity and the very mature task of actually needing to take care of somebody sways throughout Shrink Dust. Even down to that album art, there is a sense of playing between skins here, one congregation of characteristics growing out and alongside another.

If Shrink Dust poses two versions of VanGaalen, then they are the ones portrayed in the interview. On the one side we have the VanGaalen who has built a career honing a gleeful love of noise and psychedelia into coiled pop melodies, while on the other resides someone a little more melancholic. This side has always been there in a way — Diaper Island certainly showcased the outlines of this character — but until Shrink Dust it has always remained shadow-like. In full flesh on the new record, this is a compelling character, one that is pared back somewhat from the psychedelic noise romps of past efforts. Most of the highlights on Shrink Dust come from a vulnerable, lonely place — a place wrapped somewhere between “stoner goofball” and “that guy”.

But who is that guy? In one way it is the disciplinarian, the one who must take experience as a cue for ensuring the well-being of a child. That guy sits astride the version of the singer who embraces weirdness out of pure enthrallment. There’s a tension between these two figures that brings out the very best of VanGaalen’s song-writing. “Weighed Sin” is easily his most mournful song—drifting out existential crises of parenting and regret over echoing guitar reverb. In immediate contrast to an album like Diaper Island, Shrink Dust’s air of lamentation and melancholy feels like a come down. Never in terms of quality, though; no, this feeling is of a ghost. Some spectral knowing stalks alongside what are otherwise simple and endearing melodies: “Lila” is a close comparison to Diaper Island’s “Sara”, but where the latter intrinsically begs to the optimist, asking a lover to “wake me up when you go”, the former sets the scene in the not-so-happily ever after where the lover has already left. In turn, “Lila” plays with similar melodic ticks as “Sara”, but things are slowed down considerably, the song’s ramshackle skeleton sounding as if it will splinter apart with just the slightest touch.

This melodic similarity, or, rather, familiarity, is key to Shrink Dust’s framework. It effortlessly tip-toes the fine line between being repetitive and, to quote from a Destroyer song, finding that place “where good writers go to find one thing and stick with it”. It’s a difficult line to find (hence “good writers”) and it’s an even more precarious perch to navigate with any kind of consistency. Wallace Stevens, as an example, does it with aplomb: he made a career writing pretty much the same poem over and over again, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t one hell of a good poem. Similarity with difference — maybe that is what familiarity is all about. Throughout Shrink Dust VanGaalen sorts through a cycle of melodic and sonic patterns; by the time we get to “Hangman’s Son”, with its lilting and solitary pedal steel guitar cry, we’ve heard that same cascading chorus line at least three times.

But it works.

I realize that this review uses character metaphors a lot, and it may come across as somewhat derisory of VanGaalen — as if his music lacks authenticity. Firstly, authenticity is bullshit. Secondly, I find it much more interesting to collide what we mean by fact and fiction into one ball of great big stuff. To that end, referring to Shrink Dust as having two versions of VanGaalen, or that he produces two characters, is meant to suggest a sort of truth through form. If division between fact and fiction is your thing, then by all means just look to the quote I provided at the beginning of this review: life is full of characters and creations and Shrink Dust explores what it means to house various identities in one body. I think that instead of portraying this conflict of personae as troubling and in need of redemption, VanGaalen sees it as a well of inspiration.

I mean, the noise-man still rears his head (in fact, he never truly goes away at all) in songs like the jangly and head-bobbingly messy “Leaning on Bells”, but another, more introspective character arises from behind this figure to take the lead on what is a very good album indeed. This character has found a pedal steel and he loves the nighttime. In the end Shrink Dust is still very much another Chad VanGaalen record, and your penchant for his particular mix of folk, rock, psychedelic, and noise will go a long way in determining your feelings for this album (which even throws in some country twang here and there!). But things have changed toward something a little softer and a little more nuanced than past VanGaalen releases. This isn’t to slight what has otherwise been an interesting and strong career so far, but Shrink Dust finds its own groove and niche to fit nicely alongside all these other pieces. “I’m a monster”, he sings on the bouncy “Monster”, but he’s only that thing sometimes, and other times he is the goofball, and other times he is the dad. These players all make appearances throughout Shrink Dust as variations on a theme of living within roles. Living in and living without.

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