On World’s Most Stressed Out Gardener, his seventh album proper, Canadian artist Chad VanGaalen further confirms his position as one of our more interesting indie-rock singer-songwriters, presenting what is perhaps his most ambitious offering yet.
Opener Spider Milk begins with lyrics as cryptic as the title suggests, setting the mood for the surreal fun to come (and perhaps warning us not to try too hard to understand what will follow). A sweet guitar-led ballad, simultaneously evocative of Syd Barret and The Beatles, it leads us to a brief and non-committal but incredibly catchy chorus before the song reaches its midpoint and bursts into electrified cosmic life, like the simultaneous birth of thousands of tiny stellar arachnids. The broad spectrum of textures and moods contained within its barely three-minute run time sets the tone for the eclectic, ever-shifting sounds of the album as a whole – in fact, Spider Milk really sounds like two songs, which is precisely the kind of album this is. Musically, WMSOG is quite a patchwork of styles, notably leaning towards a more Sixties and Seventies influenced sound, with flashes of sunshine garage-psych alongside the sort of bass-driven indie rock grooves that are more familiar in his work, but which here have a more overtly Seventies feel in places. The record has no shortage of reflective mellowness, but the longest song, Inner Fire, is five minutes of scratchy krautrock disco that sounds a bit like Amon Duul playing in an abandoned swimming pool.
VanGaalen is also a renowned animator, and if you’ve seen any of his videos, you’ll know that one reason he could find gardening stressful would be due to the sheer mindboggling complexity and range of the imagined plants his mind’s eye might compel him to draw. His animations deliver a never-ending psychedelic buffet of shapes and colours, and a POV ranging from the microscopic to the cosmic, as if VanGaalen has just realised the sheer limitlessness of what his mind can put on screen, and can’t resist leaning into the breeze of infinity. This maximalist tendency also bleeds into his music and production here, with the album taking winding and circuitous sonic paths through alien topiary. Self-produced, there’s an audible human presence to the recordings that feels of a piece with the general psychedelic mood, and which lends a homespun warmth – though make no mistake, this is no amateur effort. But yes, a song like the beautiful Golden Pear (a sunbeam of pure emotion that sits at the record’s heart) will start off sounding like it was recorded in a garden shed, and that’s all part of the charm (as is the sound of an exasperated child demanding their dad’s attention over the shaker-percussion intro, or Chad singing “I chopped off the legs of my jeans, and now my shorts fit perfectly”).
VanGaalen’s extensive back catalogue of extra-curricular experiments has always suggested that he’s continually tinkering in his sonic potting shed – and it’s all gone into the soil here, wide-eyed cosmic indie guitar pop, synth soundtracks to lonely space melancholy, drum machine claps, cellos, acoustic chimes and flutes, pots and (yes, one suspects) pans. “One sip for every new instrument that appears on the album” is a drinking game that anyone would quickly lose. There are ever-shifting textural layers to keep the ears arrested, as VanGaalen strives to fit all of his flowers in the bed at once in one mind-bending, third-eye-opening floral display.
The “psychedelic” label is unavoidable here, but that term alone is a bit reductive and doesn’t do justice to the full scope of this record, in some ways the most accessible VanGaalen has yet produced, and certainly the most sonically rich. On WMSOG, it feels like he’s embraced a broader range of influences, and a psych-influenced scrapbook sound-collage production strategy that helps effectively balance his quieter reflective material with the epic rockers. But that’s perhaps over-thinking what is, ultimately, simply a very fun record – as perfect for a lie down in a flowerbed on a balmy summer’s day as it is for a late-night paranoid lights-out home disco. Letting himself simply enjoy time spent toiling in his sonic garden, VanGaalen has created what might be his most joyful and representative album to date. The titular gardener is perhaps only stressed out as this garden simply won’t stop GROWING. Sure, it might be blocking the view from the road, and the neighbours may have called the council, but its scope and wilful wildness is inarguably glorious.
The World’s Most Stressed Out Gardener is available now, via Sub Pop Records