As a music fan, I have a certain respect for the sanctity of albums. The first time I listen to an LP, I always start from the top, hearing the songs in the order the artist intended. There’s usually an ebb and flow to the songs that’s only perceptible in that way, it helps you appreciate musical and lyrical themes. That being said, White Wilderness is best heard in a completely different manner than John Vanderslice has laid it out.
Vanderslice’s breezy ninth album doesn’t really get going until about five songs in. Yes, the first song begins with lyrics about sunrises around the globe, but other than that, the natural beginning of White Wilderness is the ironically titled “After it Ends.” The first few tracks are a jumble of thinly veiled political posturing and big, Beatlesque horns that just miss the mark. The album somewhat improves upon repeated listens, but there is a meandering quality to the songs. They contain lot of good ideas that just can’t seem to get off the ground.
“After it Ends” is a simple song, mostly just Vanderslice singing over an acoustic guitar for just over two minutes, but it’s the first song that feels fully formed. It’s followed by the martial rhythms of “Overcoat,” which blend strings and distortion in an echo of some of the better tracks from the singer songwriter’s older works like Pixel Revolt and Emerald City. Most of White Wilderness finds Vanderslice in his typically contemplative – and not entirely content – frame of mind. Songs like “Alemany Gap” could be taken as an ode to a slow summer day, or a curse to the life less traveled. “I could have followed anyone, but we’re standing here / On this faded fishing peer, with nightfall threatening / All afternoon,” he sings, coming back and again to refrain about having nowhere to be. “English Vines” alternates between the beauty of a garden and the vines that choke the plants within.
Then, not long after, it’s over. At only nine tracks, White Wilderness feels short, and despite closing on a four-plus minute underwater piano serenade called 20K, the end feels abrupt, almost like Vanderslice just gave up. Vanderslice knows his way around a hook, and his lyrics often exhibit an innate intelligence, but the pervasive mood of White Wilderness is exhaustion. This probably wasn’t intentional. Perhaps after nine albums, Vanderslice is starting to go through the motions.
White Wilderness was recorded with the Magik*Magik Orchestra over only three days, but it’s actually the more stripped down songs that feel better crafted. The rest could have used more time in the oven. On one track, he sings about waking up in a hospital bed, “Bound down like Gulliver tied up in thread.” This album feels like it never fully got up.