Album Review: The Dream Syndicate – The Universe Inside

[ANTI-; 2020]

In his drug-fueled memoirs Flash ou le Grand Voyage, French writer Charles Duchaussois describes all intoxicating substances as belonging to one of two categories: “those that make you float (“planer” in the original, meaning “to get high”).  And those that make you travel.” Granted, his take on the matter was coming from a very specific time and place (Kathmandu in the late 60s), and even though this blunt compartmentalisation might seem somehow too simplistic or naive to be taken as an absolute truth, its origins are nevertheless worth considering, for they refer to the most basic, stripped-down sensation each substance had to offer.

Music too, it seems, could be categorised in such a manner: there’s music that makes you euphorically feel like you’ve been lifted from the ground by a greater force, while other evokes references that are almost tangible and therefore mimic the intensity of a full voyage.

And then there’s music that appears to emerge from a mix of the two, unexpectedly crossing both universes without ever fully committing to a definite sensation or effect, fomenting a certain discomfort while simultaneously putting you at ease with what it evokes. That is the case of The Dream Syndicate‘s new album The Universe Inside, a collective experiment from the L.A.-based quartet to which the 20-minute lead single and video “The Regulator” acts like a formidable gateway — “a microcosmos of the entire record,” as singer/songwriter Steve Wynn puts it himself.

However, this microcosmos definition doesn’t seem to apply exclusively to the album’s opener; each of The Universe Inside‘s five tracks encapsulates custom-made sensorial miniverses, designed to transport you far away in that float-meets-travel mashup fashion. Sonically intriguing and mesmerising, The Universe Inside toys with an idiosyncratic approach to jazz-rock territories without ever losing sight of the neo-psych landscape The Dream Syndicate are an integral piece of, the band having played a major influence in the revival of the genre brought about in the mid 2010s. 

An evident departure from the fuzz-filled post-punk they coloured the 80s Paisley Underground scene with (and even from the slight return to form they demonstrated with recent albums How Did I Find Myself Here? and These Times), The Universe Inside delivers exactly what it promises: an intricate yet abstract adventure throughout, adequately heavy and grave, reaching for each and every corner of our brain like liquid lava with an insistent demand for attention and detachment concurrently.

This is an album that seems naturally conceived for being played as a full live performance, as it rings as too intense to be properly perceived by a home listen alone. An engaging experience and courageous effort from a band that is indisputably crucial to the late-century alternative scene, The Universe Inside might not be insanely memorable as a whole, but will still make for recurrent vivid flashbacks in the days after you’ve listened to it.