John Vanderslice

Cellar Door

BY Helen SpitzerPublished Mar 1, 2004

Something is burning in John Vanderslice, and it comes tumbling out like fury or sexual desire. On previous records he's encoded his life as a series of cryptic memoirs, often lifting the words of poets or colleagues where it suits his purposes. This time around, poetry, memory and history collapse in on themselves. He traverses ground that is more troubled than ever before, with the rare ability to balance subtle detail with an extravagant, grandiose gesture, and he’s getting awfully close to perfecting his art. The album is simply frightening in its beauty — and at times it's just simply frightening. Opening with the raging "apocalyptic sound,” it continues onward in a grim tour of execution, torture, failed escapes and the unrelenting ghosts of addiction. But once you dive in, the language is amazing. Vanderslice writes in a way that is both visual and tactile, and the music vibrates underneath the images like a film score. A man travelling to identify what may be his son's body is confined to a bullet train as it "smears land into sky.” The moment is stretched out and examined; just as such moments are drawn out in film, or in life. As the content gets darker, the music grows strangely pretty, with delicate guitar, bells and his distinctive big, weird drum sound. Sometimes it's hard to welcome the record that follows one that is especially loved, such as 2002's Life and Death of an American Fourtracker. But the intensity found on Cellar Door is alluring in an entirely different way, and oddly enough, is likely to be more accessible to a wider audience.

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