David Vassalotti's Dreamy Guitar Pop Is the Truth
The Merchandise co-founder is on a search for answers to big questions – his new video for "Let It Burn" is just one step in that process.
“When I get drunk I do bad things,” drawls David Vassalotti on “Let It Burn,” the nearly six-minute standout track from his new record, Guitar Dream. If that track were an anthem, that would be the line to yell. But the songs on Guitar Dream are anything but anthems. In fact, Vassalotti says they’re meant for being alone – he might not ever play them live.
Solitude gives you room to contemplate the big ideas. So it makes sense that one of Guitar Dream’s recurring themes is truth. “Sincerity – in music, in life – is very important to me, perhaps the most important thing,” Vassalotti says. “But truth is much more fragile than sincerity. The tiny idealist buried somewhere within me strives for the manifestation of ‘truth’ – whatever it may be – in the absence of god, knowing I'll probably never find it (if it even exists), but still striving nonetheless.” Vassalotti almost titled the new album I'm Telling You the Truth and Other Extravagant Lies. He only decided against it because he’s not a fan of long titles.
That particular rumination informed much of Guitar Dream, Vassalotti’s third solo release under his own name, which is a clearly focused, surprisingly buoyant and straightforward collection of pensive rock songs. Vassalotti recorded it with the help of his “main man and collaborator” and co-founder of their band together Merchandise, Carson Cox, in Cox’s basement in Silver Spring, Maryland. The two met in Tampa, Florida in 2005 when Cox tracked Vassalotti’s old project Cult Ritual, and they’ve remained close since. (Merchandise, he says, is “not officially done” but “not in a working capacity right now.” Vassalotti lives with the band’s drummer Leo Suarez, but writes that the three of them are each “trying to scratch different itches for the moment. We'll probably do another record, but it might be five years before it comes out.”) While Cox was Merchandise’s outspoken frontman, Vassalotti was the guitarist and songwriter out of the spotlight. He still likes it that way, a shy guy who prefers to be on the “periphery” of the music industry, “steering clear of all the bullshit (of which there is much),” and conducting his interviews (such as this one), via e-mail.
2016’s Broken Rope was tumultuous, playing with all kinds of sounds – from industrial to synth pop – but Guitar Dream, as its title points toward, is truly a guitar record. It’s layered, of course, with unsettling tones and bright synths, but this time those come second to melodies, lyrics, and Vassalotti’s unique and poignant vocals. There are no psych or noise studies here.
“Broken Rope was very chaotic on the surface, but ultimately representative of how I see and hear the world,” Vassalotti says. “It went in many different directions.” During the same time he recorded Guitar Dream, he also made an LP called Reprobrated, which he says is “95% sample-based” with a smattering of vocals and instruments. “These two records side-by-side are a direct Jekyll-and-Hyde split from Broken Rope,” he explains. “ Guitar Dream has all the sweet, vulnerable, poppy tunes, while Reprobated can be very harsh and abstract (yet still groovy). I never want to settle on one thing. A keyboard country record will probably come next.”
Vassalotti’s head was “a mess,” he says, before making Guitar Dream. “A bunch of bad personal shit piled up within a matter of weeks and I thought I was losing my mind,” he remembers. While in the midst of moving from Florida to Philadelphia, he “desperately needed a diversion to maintain sanity.” The making of Guitar Dream was an attempt to sort through this turmoil, to make things clear for himself. “I wanted to properly document all these loose fragments that have been floating in my mind for the past decade, so I could get out of the quicksand I found myself in and move on to new things.”
If you’re looking for comparisons, this album cycle Vassalotti’s been likened to Morrissey, Kurt Vile, Edwyn Collins, Mark E. Smith, and Burt Jansch. “A varied list,” he wrote when given the names, “but I’ll take it.” His own favourite artists are “the ones that come off as profound yet simple and unpretentious at the same time: Townes Van Zandt, Leonard Cohen, Richard Thompson, Neil Young, Bill Callahan. Writers that can strike a balance between meaningful lyrics and good music.” Emotionally honest folk and rock singers, all of them, but Guitar Dream is also very pop-minded; in all honesty, the Morrissey comparison isn’t so far off at all.
Though Guitar Dream isn’t as experimental (and definitely not as disorienting) as his previous solo efforts, Vassalotti’s songwriting is as strong as you might expect from the prolific architect of Merchandise’s gritty shoegaze. It’s a solid melodic rock record with striking lyrics fixated on regret, light, and moving on. There’s lots of fiery imagery, too: “burning like a witch” on the bittersweet and jangly “In The Garden”; bridge-burning on “The Lines Between Us,” which is all swelling and noodly and poetic; and letting it all burn on, well, “Let It Burn.” Maybe I like that song most because it’s the best of all Vassalotti’s worlds – incorporating pop tendencies with a murky haze, an insanely catchy hook, and just the right amount of screeching and grinding to keep it on edge.
“On the surface, this song is just the ramblings of a jilted lover who's totally lost his mind,” Vassalotti says of “Let It Burn,” which is both a breakup song and a read on the current social atmosphere. “But it goes a bit deeper. Things feel remarkably different post-2016. While this song is not explicitly political, some of that general nihilistic discontent seeped into the writing. It's a world where illusions are being constantly shattered, which may lead to a rebirth out of the ashes or just straight-up annihilation. We are at an important moment in history and are watching all this unfold in real-time. It feels new and frightening. Who knows what'll happen?”
David Vassalotti's Guitar Dream is out now on Wharf Cat.
Leah Mandel is a writer based in New York and is on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on Noisey US.