Chad VanGaalen started to gain more exposure in the indie singer-songwriter scene around the same time that Sufjan Stevens released his highly acclaimed Illinoise. On his first record, Infiniheart, VanGaalen’s concise, angsty, DIY rock offered a clear counterpoint to Stevens’s earnest and humanistic pocket symphonies. VanGaalen’s voice chirps and squeals like Barry Gibb and quivers like Neil Young, but his compositional style of two-minute, lo-fi anthems is indebted to Guided by Voices.
Most of the songs on VanGaalen’s third album, Soft Airplane, stretch out into three-minute territory, a difference from his first two LPs. “Clinically Dead” and “Traffic” have been the grungy highlights of VanGaleen’s musical corpus, and like those two songs, a mainstay of Soft Airplane is VanGaalen’s use of morbid imagery: The opening track, “Willow Tree,” he sings, “Take my body/Put it in a boat/Light it on fire”; “Bones of Man” features its own surreal visions of apocalypse with its description of “This world of wonder/We’ll eat the bones of man”; and “Molten Light” is the story of a reanimated corpse that annihilates a small cadre of peasants.
With a lack of lyrical development, an emphasis on sound effects is insufficient to make Soft Airplane memorable. Songs like “City of Electric Light” are burdened with an incessant repetition of the chorus (“You were burning like a city of electric light”) and “TMNT Masks” and “Phantom Anthills” aren’t just lyrically repetitive and limp but built around awkward beats. “Old Man + the Sea” is exemplary of the album’s problem: The song is a retelling of Hemingway’s novella, and by the two-and-a-half minute mark, the story’s been told but VanGaalen includes some extra moaning and a rambling, effect-laden, minute-long epilogue that betrays the economy of the song’s inspiration. As such, Soft Airplane fails to surpass VanGaalen’s previous output.