Sparse, haunting and genreless
John Vanderslice’s new album, The Cedars, takes its name from a territory north of San Francisco filled with bizarre rock formations, winding canyons, and rare plant species. Finding creative inspiration in the anomalies of nature, Vanderslice—who owns a piece of land in this region—immersed himself in the otherworldly terrain while writing The Cedars, which is reflected in the unpredictable song structures and overall sense of desolation that pervades the album.
Like its namesake region, The Cedars presents a version of beauty that is inseparable from its sinister qualities; the listeners who are most unnerved by the sparse, ghostly synth patterns will likely also be the ones who experience the greatest sense of wonder when the sublime moments arrive—an effect which could only be the work of a masterful craftsman with a detail-oriented approach. Indeed, each element of the album (by far Vanderslice’s most experimental release to date) resounds with the intentionality of a true perfectionist, and the luxury of recording at his own Tiny Telephone studio doubtless afforded him the freedom to pursue his vision without compromise.
Though The Cedars definitely continues the recent trend of indie rock artists abandoning their guitars in favor of a colder, more electronic sound—Bon Iver’s 22, A Million and Low’s Double Negative are prime examples—it would be inaccurate to say that he is simply following the example of his contemporaries. Almost defiant in its idiosyncrasy, the album encompasses quasi-industrial beats, a melange of synth tones, and some minimalistic guitar chords. Though, perhaps the most unusual factor is Vanderslice’s clear, boyish voice, which floats lightly to the top of the mix. (Fortunately, he applies restraint to his usage of autotune, avoiding a common pitfall for many of his peers, who seem to have taken inspiration from chipmunks in their vocal styles). Though initially, the sounds may seem to overshadow the words, Vanderslice’s lyrics are just as well-crafted as every other element of the album, and they contribute a sense of intimacy that is otherwise absent. Ultimately, The Cedars is driven by its unpredictability and does not fit easily into any category.
One particularly memorable example of Vanderslice’s unpredictability is the seventh track, “Oral History of Silk Road 1.” Placed at a point when listeners may have just adjusted to the bleak, meditative atmosphere of the album’s first half, this song forces them to recalibrate their mindset. It is exhilarating in a subdued way, and one of the most guitar-based songs on the record. Another standout track is “I’ll Wait for You,” which contains some of Vanderslice’s most poignant lyrics.
Though The Cedars may be initially confusing, it will reveal its many subtleties with repeated listens. Though the sound is sometimes cold and bare, Vanderslice has captured great depths of emotion on this album, and listeners with an exploratory mindset will be rewarded.