Former MK Ultra front-man and current solo artist/singer-songwriter John Vanderslice is nothing if not consistent. At his “worst,” Vanderslice is simply pleasant — at his best, he’s transcendent.
It’s been awhile since he’s hit transcendence, though. Since Cellar Door, arguably his most alluring and diverse album, he’s lost a bit of the aesthetic and lyrical punch that drove that album and its predecessor, Life and Death of an American Fourtracker. Emerald City and Pixel Revolt, his two most recent releases, have their moments of poignancy and darkness, true — but nothing quite as piercing or menacing as, say, “Pale Horse” (“rise like lions after a slumber in / in greatly unknowable numbers / free the blood that must ensue / we are many and they are few“), or “Heated Pool and Bar” (“but you can’t be nice / you put your gun to their head / and you pull back the pin / and you can’t be good”). For someone who’s developed a reputation as being a really nice guy in his interpersonal interactions (and he is), and, perhaps partly because of that fact, Vanderslice is especially affecting when he’s pissed off.
“Fetal Horses,” the single from his upcoming album, Romanian Names, finds Vanderslice combining familiar techniques in newer ways. Typically more fond of electronic keys, Vanderslice uses piano sparingly, but it finds prominence on “Fetal Horses,” accompanied by his old favorite, the synthesizer, and an odd background that sounds a bit like a regurgitating computer. There’s even a dabble of electric guitar around the two-minute-mark, another switch for Vanderslice, who often prefers an acoustic guitar.
Animal imagery is common for Vanderslice – a runaway bunny in “Angela,” birds in “Up Above The Sea” and “White Dove,” the whale in “You Were My Fiji” – and with “Fetal Horses” he returns to the starring mammal of “Pale Horse” and “Lunar Landscapes.” He also adds in some of that acerbic morbidity that snuck into the lyrics of at least one song on almost all of his albums, “To come back to me again / You’d break everything I have / You’ll turn a hanging man bad.”
Though not a drastic change of form, there’s something about “Fetal Horses,” a kind of quiet excitement, that begs to know what Vanderslice has in store on Romanian Names, due May 19th.