The first few times that I listen to an album, I try to give undivided focus to neither the lyrics nor the music, but rather take it in as a whole experience. I am admittedly, and rather unfortunately, unfamiliar with John Vanderslice’s back catalogue, so I had no preconceived expectations going into Emerald City. My first impression was that it is a very lovely record, great indie-pop, sweet and melodic at times, and with just the appropriate amount of distortion. And then I paid attention to the lyrics. Wow.
In doing research for this review, I learned some things about John Vanderslice and the new album – that he is no stranger to political songs, that the album title is in reference to Iraq’s Green Zone, and that most of the album was written during a still ongoing legal battle to get a visa for his French girlfriend. My first impression that Emerald City is a lovely record is still apt, but knowing the album’s background and becoming immersed in the lyrical storytelling makes the listening experience ever more powerful.
John Vanderslice recorded Emerald City, tracked mostly live, at his all-analog Tiny Telephone studio, resulting in what he likes to call “dirty hi-fi”. The analog recording certainly makes for a warmer sound, which is almost crucial for such a deep, politically charged album. Vanderslice knows how to produce (although he gave most of those duties over to Scott Solter for this album), he is a more than capable guitarist and singer, but most importantly, he can write a song. Some of his arrangements initially come across as rather simplistic – but with each listen the layers that Vanderslice has manufactured reveal themselves and the intricacy that goes into his songwriting becomes apparent.
And then there are his lyrics: the core of Emerald City is an affirmation of Vanderslice’s frustration with the United States’ foreign and domestic policies. The lyrics are thought-provoking, sometimes chilling, and always intelligent. The standout “Kookaburra” opens the album with Vanderslice painting images of smoke-filled skies, “White on white, like streamers of dirty confetti“. “White Dove” is a prime example of his lyrical prowess – if you don’t ponder the lyrics it’s a great pop song that might even make you want to get up and dance. Listen to the story though and it’s about a man meeting his neighbor and discovering that her daughter had been kidnapped and murdered at age eight.
Though much of the focus of the album is placed on post-9/11 struggles, it’s not your run of the mill protest album. Vanderslice’s position comes off as frustrated but not necessarily one-sided. In “The Minaret”, told from the point of view of a soldier in a war-torn town, he sings “I can see both sides, and it paralyzed me“. The mounting disgruntlement comes to a head in the final track “Central Booking”, a deceptively sweet love song that is reportedly the most autobiographical song on the album in that it deals specifically with the visa trouble Vanderslice is battling. The last line of the song successfully sums up the entire album: “Looks like September has won once again“.
With such an abundance of heavy material, it may seem that Emerald City would be a difficult listen. Where John Vanderslice has succeeded, though, is in the production and the creation of dense instrumentation. So never fear indie-pop fans, it’s possible to listen to the album and enjoy both the music and Vanderslice’s rather tenuous vocals. Just don’t dwell too long on the lyrics.