Vanderslice delivered his most fully realized vision with 2001’s Time Travel Is Lonely.
Whether working primarily on his own (the early albums) or with an ensemble as large as an orchestra (White Wilderness), John Vanderslice crafted carefully planned disarray, focusing his songwriter’s pen as well as his producer’s ears. Though he would spend another decade or so exploring sounds, narratives and techniques, Vanderslice delivered his most fully realized vision with 2001’s Time Travel Is Lonely. The artwork, liner notes and songs combine for a work that looks like a Victorian adventure narrative, borrows from Romantic poetry an Baroque composition and comes from the future, all while sounding specifically like only Vanderslice.
The album ostensibly relates the loss of Vanderslice’s brother, Jesse, as he goes mad in Antarctica. The liner notes (many of which become lyrics) are Jesse’s missives home. That he opens his epistles by quoting Thomas Pynchon signals the strangeness of the narrative; that Jesse later alludes to Coleridge sets up the earnest reworkings of William Blake’s poetry. This is fun for Vanderslice, fresh off his Bill Gates/Microsoft practical jokery, who busily puts together more than just a collection of related songs.
Those 13 songs, in fact, only connect thematically. The disc is a concept album, but it’s not the story of a man sitting on an iceberg. Instead, Vanderslice flows through meditations on isolation, loss and memory, the sort of priorities of thought we might have if we slowly ceased to be in that blinding southern freeze. The album darkens that glare, creating an eternal gloaming as thoughts of death continually resurface.
The title track – hidden eight songs in, patiently waiting for its revelation – works as a legend for the map of the disc. The song builds around a melodic drum part, filled out by strange samples. Technology offers us our only form of connection, but we move forward into unknown terrain, recognizing only the loneliness of our situation in our alien terrain. With its precision recording and strange quirks, the song shows Vanderslice on the production path toward the “sloppy hi-fi” sound he’d achieve a few years later with Cellar Door, with its meticulous preparation and attention to rawness.
Stranded alone, Vanderslice (or Jesse or whoever) has time to reflect but little tolerance for nostalgia. “Everything Changed” and “My Old Flame” make a sequence of painful memory. The first, reflecting on a child’s death, remains aching and unnerving. Its titular phrase reappears in “My Old Flame,” itself an odd reworking of both Robert Lowell and Sam Coslow/Arthur Johnston, owing far more in mood to the poet but, possibly because of the use of “IKEA” as a verb, utterly feeling like a Vanderslice irruption into the chilly timestream.
Maybe it’s the time travel, but Vanderslice appropriates and recontextualizes classic works throughout the album. “Little Boy Lost” and “If I Live or If I Die” both utilize Blake poems, the latter being one of the highlights of the album. Its bouncy piano highlights the dark meditation of the piece and sets up the melancholy of the late-arriving synth. Vanderslice cutting through time (along with his sci-fi imaginings of Bach for his interludes) puts a heavy weight on a pop album while also reexamining the deliberate superficial simplicity of Blake’s “songs.”
Little about this album, though, is simple. The production leaves plenty of space in the sound, yet Vanderslice carefully orchestrated usage of a wide range of sounds, samples, percussion and a wealth of instruments that come in and out. References abound and reality – like the narraive of “Everything Changed” – can be undercut, sometimes at the same time, as when the singer of “Emma Pearl” questions the existence of Roald Dahl’s great-niece. If she’s not real, the narrator may be losing his mind. If she is real, then the call to “Smash the satellites” becomes a real part of this album’s conflicted view of technology.
While playing with the past, Vanderslice imagines possible futures for those who once existed. “Do You Remember?” creates opportunities for new life for the man who stood in front of the tanks of Tiananmen Square. No one seems to know what happens to him, but Vanderslice, coloring the pink in the Antarctic dusk, gives him a possibly bright future.
Bookending an album of speculation, Vanderslice has two songs that hint at autobiography (as if we’d believe that), bringing the album into a different sort of space. Opener “You Were My Fiji” compares touring as a musician to the whaling life and, prophetically or through time travel, eerily anticipates Vanderslice’s real-life van accident from 2014, an experience which turned him away from life as a recording artist (allowing him to still practice his studio art at his own Tiny Telephone studio). Closer “Gainesville, Fla” points to Vanderslice’s hometown while mixing love and force fields, and presumably bringing the Kursk submarine disaster in “the melting sea” into the world of both Vanderslice and Jesse, hearing disaster from the wrong pole, the only place any of us can hear it from.
Standing simply as a collection of songs, Time Travel Is Lonely would have been memorable, but it was never just that. Instead, Vanderslice created a stunningly unified work of art, thematically coherent without ever feeling reductive or overbearing. Its captured reality relies equally on its own questioning and its own realizations, both in speculation and in revelation. Accessible and complex, it moves in time, sharing its chilly loneliness in its sweeping art.