Stardust Birthday Party is a therapeutic, compassionate album.
On his fourth album after leaving the Philly-based Toy Soldiers in 2014, Ron Gallo drops some of the lightheartedness and whimsy of his earlier efforts in favor of a more urgent sound, giving Stardust Birthday Party the feel of something made as a bulwark against troubled times. As Gallo sings on one song, “It’s all gonna be OK/ It’s all gonna end someday.”
Most of the tracks found here consist of fairly short, punchy missives calling for mutual understanding, tolerance and acceptance. On the slower, more drawn-out “‘You’ Are the Problem,” Gallo at first appears to be addressing the hatemongers, urging them to reflect on and curb their feelings of animosity toward others. As the song continues, though, it becomes clear that Gallo is not just addressing people with hateful feelings as though he were on the side of the winners, as though he himself were immune to such feelings. Indeed, much of the album reflects on the feelings of anger, sadness, dispossession and dissatisfaction, and it advocates for tackling those feelings within us as a precondition for fostering more meaningful connection and positivity in society overall.
On “’You’ Are the Problem,” Gallo’s laidback, prophetic delivery is almost reminiscent of John Lennon. Elsewhere, his vocals are more aggressive, such as the Kinks-meets-post-punk “Prison Décor” and the seemingly Public Image Ltd.-inspired “I Wanna Die (Before I Die).” On another stand-out, “Bridge Crossers,” his vocals are especially strong, with the slight whine in his voice contributing a light psychedelic touch to this joyous, melodic carousel of a song, which would not have sounded out of place on an Elephant 6 compilation. On the closing song, “Happy Deathday,” Gallo’s vocals have a sweet monotony to them, with half-spoken, half-sung lyrics approaching a diaristic stream-of-consciousness before the song ends in a swirl of feedback.
The only misstep, arguably, is the funky “Love Supreme (Work Together!),” which is a bit stock, both musically and lyrically, compared to how entertaining and inventive the surrounding songs are. But this is a minor complaint given what a clever and entertaining album Gallo has crafted, one in which he shows himself just as capable of observation as he is of introspection, and in which the irreverence is always balanced with the seriousness and care with which Gallo approaches his subject matter, which is nothing less than our shared life, alone together.
In a time of smart songwriting by the likes of Kurt Vile, Courtney Barnett, Ariel Pink, Mac DeMarco, Eleanor Friedberger, Kevin Morby and Angel Olsen (to name only a few of the best known), Ron Gallo secures his place in this contemporary pantheon of thoughtful singer-songwriters with a voice and perspective all his own. Stardust Birthday Party is a therapeutic, compassionate album, one that is worried about the world we inhabit but is also not above laughing about it—and laughing at ourselves as we (however clumsily) try to do something about it.