As Chad VanGaalen awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic monster. At least that’s what happened according to the best track off this prodigiously talented and prolific Albertan singer’s latest record, Shrink Dust. The song, fittingly titled “Monster”, is a dazzling window of world creation that begins with the line: “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.” Welcome to VanGaalen’s universe — often surreal, mostly pretty terrifying, but always firmly planted in a strong sense of accessibility. He’s pushing you down his rabbit hole, but making sure to hold your hand.
Many of the songs on Shrink Dust, at least lyrically, defy any sort of analysis. It’s pointless to try to decipher an exact “meaning” from lines like “cut off both my hands, and threw them in the sand, watch them swim away from me like a pair of bloody crabs.” It’s like if Dali and Kafka got lost at an MGMT concert. On opener “Cut off My Hands”, he tries his hand (couldn’t help it) at subtlety, breaking out a gentle fingerpicked lead riff. When he declares, “I grew my mind into a maze,” he’s not only stating his own mission statement, he’s also cueing what’s happening sonically. Ghostly twangs and pings spring up from the ground as he falls into a deep slumber. He gloomily continues, “Fall asleep and disappear, pop some pills to chase your fear.” The remaining 11 tracks on Shrink Dust can then be seen as VanGaalen’s resulting fever dreams from this drug/despair-induced sleep.
Behind all the bizarre imagery that’s become his calling card, VanGaalen manages to hit you from every single direction with seamlessly crafted pop earworms. It’s hard to pinpoint the direct influences of the album as a whole because they’re so varied and change so quickly. He jumps from Ty Segall fuzz party (“Leaning on Bells”) to folksy torch song (“Hangman’s Son”) to mile-high romps through the ether (“Where Are You?”), all within a few minutes of each other.
This furthers the scattered, dreamlike motif of the record and keeps the listener on their toes for what’s next. A noted perfectionist, VanGaalen is rarely off the mark, whatever genre he chooses to explore. His expert command over his voice is a boon, and it also does some wonderful shape-shifting, at times recalling Daniel Johnston’s unhinged waver and elsewhere Thom Yorke’s rafter-reaching upper registers.
VanGaalen calls Shrink Dust a “country record,” and it’s easy to hear the role of his newly acquired aluminum pedal steel guitar, which he taught himself to play over the last two years. He also recently discovered The Flying Burrito Brothers, whose first two albums consequently weigh heavy on Shrink Dust. Of course, he doesn’t go full-on honky-tonk, but tracks like “Weighed Sin” and the awesomely titled slow-burner “Cosmic Destroyer” benefit from a tasteful touch of Americana. More understated touches like the “baby let your hair hang down” line in “Weird Love” sound lifted from a Crosby Stills & Nash song.
His last record, 2011’s Diaper Island, unjustly flew under the radar around the time it was released, and part of the reason was likely because of its off-putting album title and song names like “Shave My Pussy”. On Shrink Dust, he wisely tones down the vulgarity, save for the slightly NSFW cover art, inspired by 1980s sci-fi graphic novel series The Incal by Alejandro Jodorowsky and Moebius.
That’s not to say that Shrink Dust is all sunshine and flowers — quite the opposite. Death, fear, and evil loom large over every track. “Lila” is perhaps the most forlorn, chugging along until it rips its own heart out as a grand gesture of devotion. The song’s chorus skyrockets upward, like he’s trying his hardest to dislodge some long-forgotten memory of a lost love. It’s one of those songs that you swear you’ve heard before — the simple idea of longing made fresh here by VanGaalen. Ever the tinkerer, Shrink Dust expands VanGaalen’s immense talents to even more uncharted, exciting territory. The record deals with some hefty topics, but they don’t seem as insurmountable through VanGaalen’s lens.
Essential tracks: “Lila”, “Monster”