Calgary songwriter, Chad VanGaalen, is someone whose music is saturated with a perplexing undertone: at…
Calgary songwriter, Chad VanGaalen, is someone whose music is saturated with a perplexing undertone: at the one end of the spectrum, he divulges everything and anything that bubbles up in his brain. But on the other hand, all that is said teeters on the edge of incomprehension. In his fifth full-length album, Shrink Dust, we are presented with twelve ‘country songs’ brimming with jangly astral-prog soundscapes. His insistence to create his own instruments, write music about both sombre and bizarre aspects of his own worlds, and record in a makeshift garage studio, contributes to the fact that this album presents itself as a collection of novel listening experiences. Over time, these become the key to the sustained intrigue he has so expertly been able to create in what is generally a well-paced singer-songwriter album.
It’s not only the otherworldly soundscapes he captures that make Shrink Dust such an interesting album, but it is the confidence that is palpable in his ability to merge song and soundscape. Over the last four albums, he has worked at developing this reconciliation, and it’s finally paid off and come together as his best record yet. It’s also interesting to note that this reconciliation has taken place in the context of a famously robust country-esque style (he has mentioned that this is his first ‘country’ album), with a newly acquired pedal steel guitar playing a big role in most of his new songs. Despite this providing a hint of hyperrealism, it would be safe to say that Shrink Dust is predominantly far from anything normal. Case in point, some of his hand-made instruments include : a two-person thumb piano; a small harp; and an analog drum machine, which is partly made out of Lego, and all this is made to facilitate his one-man recording act. As with most things that are homemade and slightly odd, a brilliant hum and groan has weaved its way into the whole album, and a distinct feeling of cogs and levers working in the background to make everything come together abounds throughout the songs. It’s rough and tough on the edges, but the friction of everything working in unison gives this album innate warmth that is hard to come by these days. Yes, there are brilliant hooks and marvelous melodies, but the added sci-fi dimension gives a mysticism and quirkiness that makes all the difference.
Most of what is covered in his songwriting is unusual. For instance, the opening lines of the album are, “Cut off both my hands, and threw them in the sand. Watched them swim away from me like a pair of bloody crabs. Close my eyes and dream of different skies. Stare straight at the sun and try not to cry for you”. But despite the seeming absurdity of his words, the undertones are riddled with sadness, fear, pain, gloom and loss. As such, it would appear that VanGaalen has a problematic relationship with his feelings and confronting them head-on would never be an option for him. Instead, they are left to brew inside his head, only to be expelled in an odd jumble of sounds and ideas at a later stage. This skewed form of confession and approach to art becomes part of the listening experience, yet the weirdness is undeniable and, at times, overwhelming. But, it’s who he is, and the mere fact that we are allowed to interact with his feelings, albeit in a rather haphazard fashion of decoding, allows for a greater bond to form.
With all these weird measures and circumstances put in place to make this album, the songs recorded are compelling in every possible way. ‘Where Are You?’ is a clanging lo-fi cut filled with various eccentricities, yet it still holds itself together as an incredibly powerful number. It’s his ability to marry the unconventional and basic song structuring that has allowed him to concoct such potent songs. The album steers itself carelessly through its trajectory, jumping from fuzzed out punk crackers such as ‘Leaning on Bells’ to the gentle lamentation that is ‘Lila’, and campfire gems like ‘Hangman’s Son’ and ‘Weighted Sin.’ Slow-burning experimental folk track ‘Cosmic Destroyer’ clinks and clanks against a scratchy surface, but still preserves a soft and beautiful blend of oddities. The track that surmises the astonishing world inside his head is the fittingly titled ‘Monster’, in which he describes a transformation from human to beast. The lyrics detail the terrifying experience – “Ripping my eyelids a little bit wider are two prying hands that grew out from my shoulders, and I can’t explain why, but it’s hurting my eyes”.
It’s hard to describe Chad VanGaalen and his music. In just twelve tracks, there are so many varied styles and influences that shine through, it would be futile to even attempt fully understanding what he does. There are various features of his life and his music that point towards a complete multiplicity in his way of life: not only does his voice experience stylistic transitions from song to song, but his use of an instrument does too. The variety in his technical prowess emulates the range of his worlds. To him, just as he sees an instrument not having one sort of sound to make, the world has more than one life to offer for each person. In all he does, he builds upon a kaleidoscope of domains to show us and assure us that the possibilities are infinite.