VanGaalen is freak folk in the most literal sense.
Chad VanGaalen tells great campfire stories. Long, winding tales that are as funny as they are terrifying. The sort of things you chuckle at before attempting to wrap your entire body in a sleeping bag and ignore all the strange sounds echoing in the night. At least, that’s what I’ve picked up from his last two albums. VanGaalen is freak folk in the most literal sense. Banjos, acoustic guitars, golden harmonies and some downright freaky shit splattered all over it.
But that’s to be expected from a dude who sang “Cut off both my hands and threw them in the sand/ Watched them swim away from me like a pair of bloody crabs” over a shimmering guitar strum. And his penchant for poisoned beauty comes out even more on Light Information. His newest album takes cues from the nosiest cuts from his excellent (and underrated) last album Shrink Dust. Here, VanGaalen leans hard into his psychedelic and garage roots. It’s a muddy record at points, but that grime never gets in the way of the gorgeousness. In fact, it only accents it.
The fist-pumping “Old Heads” sounds like a decayed and corrupted Wild Nothings track, complete with a sharp guitar lead and soaring chorus. “Mind Hijacker’s Curse” not only has an amazing title but also a headturning ’80s vibe, filled to the brim with colorful synths and a steely bass/drum combo. It wouldn’t be out of place on the last Arcade Fire album and would have been better than about 90% of that album. “Locked in the Phase,” which immediately follows, songs like a song lost out of time. It lands somewhere between the Zombies and Cream, thanks to a thumping back beat and harsh harmonized vocals. “Mystery Elementals” full on breaks out into rock stardom. It’s some long forgotten ’70s fuzz rock jam that Tame Impala could probably do a number on. But in VanGaalen’s hands it lands like a hammerblow thanks to his screaming entwining with a howling guitar. “Golden Oceans” might be the most surprising of the lot, a ’50s rave-up that wouldn’t be out of place on a Yardbird’s record or the result of force-feeding Buddy Holly a DMT and mushroom cocktail.
And, as is always the case with VanGaalen, it’s goddamn heartbreaking. Shrink Dust’s “Lila” is a strong contender for the saddest song of the 2010s, with its dog-dies-at-the-end sorrow. But here VanGaalen explores decaying human relationships, which are much messier than our canine buddies. Penultimate track “Broken Bell” begins with VanGaalen cooing “I sit and do a drawing/ A portrait of my dad/ I should really visit him/ Before he is dead.” But he seems to back out, too afraid to face his father’s, or his own, mortality. “Our cells just won’t divide like they’re told,” he moans. “You Fool” mostly indulges in ambient sadness, broken TV remotes, dirty motel rooms and VanGaalen’s light wail. But the “fool” in the title refers to his partner. “I’m not really sorry babe,” he sighs like he wishes he could be. “Nothing ever changes/ That’s the deal,” he yowls as the drums break into double time. VanGaalen recognizes it takes much less energy to refuse change and stay miserable. That’s how so many broken relationships stay whole, and VanGaalen documents his own in heartbreaking detail.
Light Information is likely the feel-bad hit of the summer. It’s a morose but incomparably moving and pretty record. It’s not like watching a train wreck, it’s more like witnessing the aftermath of a forest fire: eerie, disturbing, yet beautiful in an alien way.