Chad VanGaalen’s album artwork for his latest record, Soft Airplane, is colorful and childlike, depicting a series of figures that seem to transform horizontally from human to bird. The final figure, the bird, releases a musical notation from its open mouth into a dialogue bubble. VanGaalen’s music suggests the relationship between flight and song that the cover art shows graphically. Music seems to be a mode of transition for him, a collecting of ideas and sounds that hang together as fluctuations of a creativity constantly on the move, fugitive, arresting bits of experience and binding them to the material world. Rather than attempting to develop a sense of wholeness over the course of an album, VanGaalen instead leaves one with the sense of an artist documenting the unforeseeable twists and turns of his own hyperactive impulse to create.
Soft Airplane veers all over the road, off the road, into the ditch and on through into cold desert starlight. There are moments of grace and abrasive moments, confusion, rock and roll; synthesizers that glow and guitars that grind, lyrics that range from throwaway gibberish to earnest and isolated. The childish aspect of the songs, the awkwardness that occasionally touches on the work of an outsider like Daniel Johnston, seems to point to a need to break through learned constraints and return to a more open state of reception, a state that VanGaalen traces back to childhood experience, the way children experience. His songs sometimes feel like attempts to grasp such a state of youthful wonderment. But they are also saturated with alienation that is much more adolescent in texture, and, at times, feel like the work of an older artist constantly recollecting, or at least of an old soul with visions strange even to himself. “Willow Tree” is of the later variety and begins the album on a sober note, VanGaalen contemplating death in a tremulous voice (which, as elsewhere, recalls Neil Young) over a lazily plucked banjo. We begin with levity and descend into the world that constantly severs it from us.
Two of the best tracks on Soft Airplane are “Phantom Anthills” and “TMNT Mask.” Both rely heavily on synthesizers and join together admirably VanGaalen’s penchant for doe-eyed dreaminess and a kinetic rhythmical sense. Simultaneously lament and celebration, they scratch out a grandeur hemmed in by the clatter of the world. TMNT stands for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, as the song relates it. Strange. What to make of the TMNT’s appearing in a song that otherwise feels like an urgent attempt at seeing through the debris of modern things to something more constant. As just another little bit of cultural effluvia? “I think I’ll go down to the river, just to get away for a while,” sings Chad VanGaalen, recalling Dylan’s “Watching the River Flow.” The river is that old symbol of change, change as the only constant; the river is a thing that is never what it was. It is a good symbol for VanGaalen, moving from one place to another and manifesting himself in widely divergent works.
The touch of chaos that is a hallmark of the songs on Soft Airplane sometimes makes it difficult to take in as a whole. I have found myself consuming it in fragments, drawn one listen to one song, the next to another. It breaks apart in my head and is reconstituted in different shapes, different arrangements. Sleep and dreams, death and decay, violence and joy. “Inside the Molecules” is both a happy-go-lucky rocker to new love and a glance beyond the horizon, to eternity. Its charm is in its offhandedness, the way it moves from one thought to the next with such seeming naturalness. It’s like its creator in that way.
MP3: “Willow Tree”