At his best, John Vanderslice takes a cerebral, innovative approach to songwriting that results in impossibly complex musical arrangements and lyrics that challenge conventions of narrative voice. His latest album, White Wilderness, is perhaps his most meticulously composed and accomplished in its musicianship, but it lacks the lyrical depth and focus that made records like Cellar Door and Pixel Revolt some of the most compelling music in recent memory. A solid enough album on its own merits, White Wilderness is nonetheless something of a disappointment from an artist of Vanderslice’s caliber and consistency.
From a production standpoint, the album is as lush and thoughtful as anything Vanderslice has recorded. Backed by the Magik Magik Orchestra, songs like “Sea Salt” and “The Piano Lesson” boast a depth of sound and variety of instrumentation rarely found in contemporary pop. There’s an instrumental break at the bridge on “Sea Salt” that’s structurally brilliant: After Vanderslice sings about the feeling of being tumbled by ocean waves, the orchestra kicks in with a series of rolling swells and jagged percussion that convey the same idea. While chamber pop tends toward the fussy and overworked, Vanderslice ensures that his use of the orchestra is always in service to his songs. The interplay between the sweet string arrangement and the roughly strummed acoustic guitar on “Convict Lake” and the unnerving buzz of violins on “Overcoat” prove Vanderslice’s unrivaled, masterful instincts as a producer and an arranger.
Where White Wilderness falters somewhat is in the content of the songs. Though the spot-on arrangements enhance each track, Vanderslice’s lyrics here simply aren’t as sharp as they routinely are. “Sea Salt” opens with a reference to the Gaza Strip, suggesting that the album might play out as another of Vanderslice’s heady political meditations, but the song’s images never cohere into anything more substantive. “Overcoat” draws a sloppy and one-dimensional narrative from a child’s latch-key childhood into his adult deviance, while “Alemany Gap” stumbles over awkward lines like “This town is a deceptively cold place/With the Alemany Gap darkening out your face,” which don’t fit the song’s meter.
Vanderslice’s strongest material demands and rewards intense scrutiny, but that isn’t the case with the songs on White Wilderness. Instead, they play out as sketches or vignettes. While there’s nothing wrong with that (indeed, “20K” and “After It Ends” are two of the loveliest songs in Vanderslice’s catalogue), the overall impression it leaves is of a half-formed album. Although he has always been most highly touted for his expertise as a producer, White Wilderness is the first of Vanderslice’s albums to sound like its production, rather than its songs, is the driving force.