Album Review: Chad VanGaalen – World’s Most Stressed Out Gardener

[Sub Pop/Flemish Eye; 2021]

On his previous LP, Light Information, Chad VanGaalen was fraught about time management. His new album, World’s Most Stressed Out Gardener, catches the Canadian world-builder extraordinaire on the flip-side: with a surplus of time on his hands. When the Corona pandemic hit a year ago, it actually crossed my mind: VanGaalen might be one of the few musicians who’d manage reasonably well in isolation. Since he was never much of a fan of touring to begin with, I’d figure VanGaalen could be perfectly content dividing his time between his distinct animation work and his music.

But as the typically VanGaalenesque album title World’s Most Stressed Out Gardener pontificates, too much of a good thing is uhm, often not actually a very good thing. On Light Information, VanGaalen found something resembling an equilibrium in his idiosyncratic career: he took up gardening, which seemed to be a huge stress reliever to offset the often painstaking animation work he had to plow through until the wee hours. Juggling both those things seemed mutually beneficial and cathartic to him.

Harvesting real vegetables in the garden and grotesque fictional vegetables on a computer screen more or less amounted to the same thing: enjoying a craft without too much stress distorting everything. Musically, there was a noticeable shift as well: VanGaalen got a gig composing music for the Adult Swim show Dream Corps, LLC, which gives him carte blanche to embrace his more abstract instincts as a composer. Plus, it allows him to do music without having to fully commit to touring. All seemed rather peachy up in those resplendent Calgary highlands.

On World’s Most Stressed Out Gardner, Chad VanGaalen indulges his inner experimentalist more than on its more recent predecessors, albeit with the same giddy, goofball disposition we’re used to. Just the way opening track “Spider Milk” teeters on with its frosty alt-folk strummings and his signature shrill vocals make it clear this is undeniably a Chad VanGaalen record with all its VanGaalenisms gloriously omnipresent. Maybe those foundations make the subtle progressions from record to record easier to discern. “Spider Milk” briskly changes pace halfway as if frantically pushing a panic button, sometimes approximating full-on Women-indebted noise rock. It signifies that shift from ‘let’s try and make a record with structured songs’ to ‘aw to heck with it, let’s just make something’.

The following track “Flute Peace” does what its title promises: you can pretty much picture VanGaalen saying verbatim “I need some flute peace” once confronted by a bigger, more over-arching concern than a misplaced mic or a scratch take. Then there’s “Starlight”, in which he channels his own inner Alice Coltrane (should note here that “Journey In Satchidananda” is one of VanGaalen’s favorite tracks). Though VanGaalen always has had a knack for transmuting outside influences into his own bizarro world (he channels Pavement on “Nightmare Scenario”), he sounds content to just let his own intuition guide the trajectory of the songs. And, hilariously enough, even then he fails at not sounding like Chad VanGaalen. It’s like his own sensibility is stuck to him like a conjoined twin. In his case, that’s actually a big positive.

It also suits VanGaalen’s zany self to call a track “Where Is It All Going?” just as the album seems set on letting the tide decide things. It’s one of the most beautiful songs on World’s Most Stressed Out Gardener, sounding like a musical serenade to Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” transmitted from the titular moon, its purveyor holding a pale blue dot in the palm of their hand. Then on the synth-based “Earth From A Distance”, VanGaalen needs no words to express a sense of wonder and oblivion.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about artists I interact with as fictional planets, and no matter where my personal taste lies, each of these planets has its wonders to cherish and nurture. I’ve visited Chad VanGaalen’s planet several times, and although it perpetually shapeshifts as a warped, treacherous and otherworldly landscape, few celestial bodies have been more welcoming and familiar over the years. As he affirms on “Water Brother”, no matter how strange and confusing, every life form comes from the same basic building blocks.

It’s funny: I live in a tiny country below sea level constantly at war with water, trying to keep an entire ocean from drowning half the population through an intricate network of dykes and locks. You’d think such a nightmare scenario would be on our minds every day, but we still go on about our daily linear lives in humdrum fashion, unaware of our extremely fragile geographical status. VanGaalen, who has Dutch roots, clearly tackles a similar quandary on World’s Most Stressed Out Gardener, overwrought on how much we allow the tangle of our lives to be caught up by forces beyond our very control.

When the Dutch election results came in this week, I was struck by a similar anguish: the cyst of the far right has grown even larger within our political apparatus. Rarely before did I feel so alienated by a place I chose to live and breathe as a human being; sensible thought and compassion seemed to have become a scarcity within these austere irrational structures. Then I visited Planet Chad, a quagmire of algae shaped antibodies, vivid shapeshifting fungi and sentient fruits with human-like appendages… and it somehow felt like home. Once you break everything down to its fertile life-giving essentials, nothing is indeed strange. Just plant a seed, and witness what grows out of it.