Buying an ambient synth album meant to be heard by plants doesn’t seem far-fetched at all.
When Mother Earth’s Plantasia first started making the rounds on the sidebars of YouTube full-album vids, it seemed like a goofy oddity from a dippy past. But its time is now. Plants are hip. Millennials too time- and cash-strapped to buy cats and dogs are plant parents instead (“You Don’t Have to Walk a Begonia,” one track title tells us). We like to surround ourselves with cute things to stave off existential dread. We like chill music, too. And we like New Age crap like astrology. So buying an ambient synth album meant to be heard by plants doesn’t seem far-fetched at all. It seems like exactly the kind of thing you’d do if the world was ending.
Mort Garson’s album was first released in 1976, at the dawn of the ongoing houseplant trend. The Secret Life of Plants was a bestseller, and the idea that plants could understand and respond to music wasn’t necessarily fringe. Garson gave away copies with the purchase of a houseplant at Mother Earth Plant Boutique in Los Angeles. What was once a weird freebie is now being reissued by respected indie label Sacred Bones as a hot cult commodity, but it’s safe to say nobody in the seventies bought a begonia just to get their hands on a copy of Plantasia.
Simply put, this is not one of the better early synth albums. Ernest Hood’s Neighborhoods from the year before uses a lot of the same sounds but is astonishing in its wistful transience and sad knowledge. Plantasia boasts almost no sense of atmosphere besides one of cheery positivity. Occasionally, as on “Symphony for a Spider Plant,” Garson’s synths will break free into the same arpeggios that have evoked the wonder of the natural world ever since Saint-Saëns took us to the aquarium. But for the most part, this stuff is meant to suggest an idea of music rather than to evoke the same emotions as great music. The music here consists mostly of Platonic ideals of moods, sounds and genres rendered in the sweet, stately tones of the Moog synthesizer.
The introductory title track is a fanfare shrunk down to plant size, suggesting kingly horns and crashing drums at the volume of a polite hello. “Baby’s Tears Blues” is a stereotypical jazz shuffle accentuated by a squeaking lead. The bass-drum thrum of “Ode to an African Violet” is probably meant to evoke the war drums of the colonial imagination, but what makes the song stand out is the grumpy five-note figure that pops up now and then. Because the compositions are so uninteresting, the individual sounds are what remain in the mind after the record’s over, like the low wah that coils beneath closing track “Music to Soothe the Savage Snake Plant.”
So why is Plantasia so popular? There’s certainly a whiff of rebellion about it. This is an album so guileless, made by a guy with the kind of name musicians usually change and boasting songs with titles like “Swingin’ Spathiphyllums,” it offers an alternative to the existential ennui we have enough of in life and that we don’t really need more of in our art. It’s every bit the product of the New Age revival that’s fostered labels like Leaving and International Feel and led to reissues of records by Laraaji and Pauline Anna Strom. It’s also something we’re seeing too much of in the late ‘10s: an average album exalted by the algorithm over more deserving music.