If you’re especially nerdy about music, you’ll likely find yourself thinking about the relationship between the producer and the musician. Some artists are adept at bringing out the best of the artists they work with while blending into the background (Steve Albini, John Goodmanson), and some end up leaving their fingerprints on absolutely everything they touch, for better (Timbaland, mostly) or worse (Danger Mouse, increasingly). John Vanderslice presents us with a best-case scenario: a producer who has spent a lot of time making their own music (first with the quietly-successful Mk Ultra, then as a solo artist), and as such, is remarkably adept at producing crisp, gorgeous work, while remaining largely unobtrusive.
The music made by producers has a tendency to sound derivative, a consequence of working on other people’s music for a living. Vanderslice, though, fails to exhibit this issue, and his music is full of bright flourishes and gentle experimentations, all of which made by someone having enough fun to be able to produce solid, if not “classic,” albums. He’s been totally quiet since 2013’s Dagger Beach largely due to a near-death experience while on tour that made him decide to step away from making his own music because, in his words, “I made 10 records, man – I realized I didn’t want to die driving down America’s broken highway system.” That he’s returned with minimal fanfare six years later with The Cedars feels fitting for an artist who, both on record and in the world, is refreshingly unassuming.
The Cedars sees Vanderslice giving into the glitchier impulses present in his previous work in varying degrees, from pre-hiatus sounding guitar jam “Oral History of Silk Road 1” to a closing track, “Enter the Void,” that will make you wonder if whatever device you’re listening on switched to a different artist entirely without you noticing. There’s even the gentle, bongo-riddled number (and fantastically-titled) “I Got Shit to Lose,” which doesn’t sound like it would have been out of place in the lush atmospheres of last year’s There’s a Riot Going On by Yo La Tengo. This is a gorgeous, headphones-ready listen, packed with synth gurgles and beats that ping-pong across channels. Vanderslice didn’t produce this album – James Riotto and Rob Shelton at his Tiny Telephone studios in San Francisco and Oakland handled that – but it still has the sloppy hi-fi aesthetics longtime fans have grown to love.
Vanderslice’s lyrics, as per usual, remain indirect – but these songs largely concern the rifts that form as we get older. At first, we get a few moments where an odd, blistering anger bubbles out of him. On “Will Call,” he’s found shouting “FUCK! You and your time!,” and a song later declaring, “It’s a miracle I’m not a drug addict/ But it’s a shame I’m still hard at it,” before doubling down: “Don’t bring home that 12-step shit/ I’ll sink that ship.” It feels like he runs out of this anger quickly, as just one song past that, the tone has softened for “151 Rum,” his ode to the uglier pitfalls of domestica: “Build an empire/ Kill a marriage/ Snuff out your best friend/ Impose your will on anything/ Too strong to kill or neutralize.” Whatever personal unrest he’s gone through since Dagger Beach remains unclear, but the good news is, his current headspace has been fruitful for immediately quotable one-liners: “Love is unsafe, best played by those with no blood in the game” (“-EXT”), “I’ve been a terrible friend but I’m back here again” (“I Got Shit To Lose”).
“I’m back from the dead, I was out of my head,” Vanderslice sings as his gentle voice is manipulated on “I Got Shit to Lose.” That song is about trying to repair a lapsed friendship, but the line feels like a gentle nod to his absence from making music for so long. It’s uncertain why, exactly, he came back from his self-imposed exile, but time has done nothing to dampen the quality of his work. The Cedars still isn’t the unimpeachable classic that Vanderslice has been threatening to make since Pixel Revolt, but it’s still an infectious, incredibly aurally pleasing and entirely welcome return to form.