Chad VanGaalen’s creative habits seem conveniently pandemic-proof. The Calgary songwriter, animator, and all-purpose eccentric has been hunkered down, making records by himself in his home studio and creative den, Yoko Eno, since long before he had a public health reason to do so. The place is a bit of an inventor’s laboratory where you’re liable to find anything from an ancient Korg monosynth to a homemade instrument known as a “Barnswallow,” and it’s where VanGaalen has been building fragmented noise-pop songs that burrow deep into his colorful subconscious since 2011’s excellent Diaper Island.
But on World’s Most Stressed Out Gardener—his eighth studio album, if you count last year’s Bandcamp-only Lost Harmonies, and sixth for Sub Pop—even a homebody like VanGaalen can’t stop a bit of apocalyptic dread from the outside world creeping in. On “Nothing Is Strange,” a gorgeous, rickety ballad on par with Diaper Island’s “Sara” or Soft Airplane’s similarly themed “Rabid Bits of Time,” VanGaalen spins a Beetlejuice-like tale of wondering if he’s already died. “Turn up the radio/I think we’re dead,” he sings, his voice garbled and decaying. Then there’s “Nightwaves,” a clattering rocker in which VanGaalen reckons with the intoxicating hum of endless doom-scrolling: “Everybody’s getting high on the same pain,” he scowls. “I can’t feel a thing.”
Named for the musician’s fondness for growing vegetables in his backyard and gobbling them raw, like a grazing animal, World’s Most Stressed Out Gardener is an odd, abrasive record, even by VanGaalen’s standards. It’s also the first to draw significant influence from his side hustle creating instrumental scores for Adult Swim shows. The record opens with “Spider Milk,” a curdled psych-folk fantasy that short-circuits into a screeching rock climax worthy of those VanGaalen-produced Women records, before going medieval with “Flute Peace,” a 46-second overture apparently rescued from VanGaalen’s aborted plans for a minimalist flute album. If that sounds punishing, the album’s other two instrumental offerings—“Earth From a Distance” and “Plant Music”—are thankfully much better: soft-focus mood pieces fit for a 1980s sci-fi movie score.
VanGaalen unleashes a more aggressive alien energy on “Starlight” and “Inner Fire,” dark krautrock workouts in which the singer sounds less like a DIY dude than a wild-eyed cult leader. He also retains his flair for oddball instrumentation: “Starlight” squeezes creepy sounds from what sounds like a babbling autoharp, while “Samurai Sword” features the clanging accompaniment of copper plumbing pipes being played as a xylophone. It’s occasionally scattershot, but the songwriter’s refusal to streamline his weirdness is a gift.
The throughline, as ever, is VanGaalen’s knack for crafting emotionally resonant songs out of absurd premises—be it a vision of a magical pear (“Golden Pear”) or a search for a misplaced samurai sword (“Samurai Sword”)—as well as his feverishly active subconscious. For years, he’s borrowed from his own dreams for prime material; there was 2004’s “Blood Machine,” about a bunch of people’s hearts plugged into a machine for circulating blood, and 2014’s “Weird Love,” in which he described a dream about plants talking. When Chad VanGaalen runs out of bizarre dreams to write songs about, that’s when he’ll know it’s time to pack it in.
Buy: Rough Trade
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