John Vanderslice’s finest work incorporates his subversive narrative voice into progressive, meticulous musical arrangements, but his most recent albums, Romanian Names and White Wilderness, emphasized only the latter of those two qualities. Dagger Beach is a substantial rebound for Vanderslice, then, because the thematic focus on finding one’s footing after a breakup makes it one of his most accessible efforts. While his songwriting remains dense and heady, Vanderslice has once again struck a balance between his knack for high-minded compositions and his compelling, deeply personal songwriting.
Dagger Beach isn’t a conventional breakup album in that few of the songs focus explicitly on the relationship itself or seek any kind of straightforward catharsis. Instead, Vanderslice uses a more literary style of protracted metaphors and detached narrators to explore complicated emotions and figure out the next steps after love has ended. Only a handful of isolated lines betray any overt bitterness or resentment (“One day the pain will pass on from me to you/It will then be clear if it’s really true,” he sings on “Raw Wood”), with songs like “Gaslight” and the standout “How the West Was Won” focusing instead on self-assessment and personal transformations on both small and large scales.
In the wake of the breakup of a long-term relationship following a tour in support of 2011’s White Wilderness, Vanderslice spent countless days off the grid, hiking through portions of northern California, and those experiences are reflected not only in the nature imagery of “Raw Wood,” but in the exceptional “Sleep It Off,” on which he adopts the POV of a man in the throes of a dissociative fugue state. The conceit of “Harlequin Press,” on which Vanderslice adopts the persona of an editor of a publishing company, is particularly insightful, likening the ability to respond to criticism within a relationship to a novelist’s creative process.
But for the brief instrumental interludes of stuffy chamber-pop that add little to the album, Dagger Beach highlights Vanderslice’s unrivaled ability to use clever song structures and forward-thinking production flourishes to enhance his songs. Vanderslice and co-producer Ian Pellicci’s spot-on instincts for dissonant sounds and rhythms all serve to heighten the tensions and insecurities that drive the album’s songs. The slow crescendo and the staccato, close-mic’ed guitars on “Song for David Berman” build a sense of dread that pays off with the line “Massacres are disguised as battles all the time,” while the alien, airy soundscape of “North Coast Rep” is perfectly matched to images of abandoned mining camps and “dried blood-red shale.” It’s his ability to adapt first-person details into unexpected and unconventional songs that’s made Vanderslice such a captivating songwriter, and Dagger Beach manages to be a personal album that doesn’t rely strictly on autobiography for its emotional or thematic heft.