This year, there’s been an mp3 going around of Rick Astley’s meme-ified earworm “Never Gonna Give You Up” reduced to almost the lowest audio quality possible. Blurred and bruised, the song takes on a new resonance; a sense of nostalgia and pathos emerges from the strutting bass and springy guitars as they bleed into one another. VEGA INTL. Night School, the third album from Texan Alan Palomo’s project Neon Indian, is like the beguiling sound of that mp3 stretched to the length of a record.
Neon Indian, who was initially lumped in with the “chillwave” movement when his first album Psychic Chasms came out in 2009, has always had an 80's fixation, but it was a fixation warped through the lens of someone who never really experienced it firsthand. His stock-in-trade is synths that whistle and whirr, vocals drenched in reverb and squelching bass. All that is here on this record, but where before the sonic experimentation seemed to come at the expense of melody, he has found an excellent balance of sound-craft and song-craft.
Following a brief intro, “Annie” gets the record off to a brilliant start. Possibly Palomo’s finest pop moment to date, the song features bright starbursts of synthesizer over a head-nodding reggae-tinged beat and a confident, catchy melody. Shades of his more eccentric tendencies emerge on the detuned funk of “Street Level,” but it doesn’t overpower the song’s forward momentum. Where before Neon Indian’s melting synth creations were full of unfocused heat, here they are bright and solid, like the aural equivalent of neon lights.
When “Smut!” begins with overlapping voices, the feeling as if you’ve stepped into a crowded bar in Roppongi Hills, and the sleek retro-futurism of the music continues in this vein. When the short slab of gargantuan Daft Punk funk “Bozo” begins, you’re suddenly in a car cruising through city streets with the perfect soundtrack. The music on this album is very on-trend, but still inventive and distinctive enough to draw you in and make you appreciate all the details.
There are enough detours on the record that it only very rarely verges on overkill. The six-minute “Baby’s Eyes” is a delicious piece of proggy pop, especially coming after the album’s most dancefloor oriented stretch from “Slumlord” to “Techno Clique.” It’s a smartly sequenced record that shows off impressive variation while still maintaining a cohesive and distinctive sonic palette. It’s remarkable that the smooth Hall & Oates pastiche of “The Glitzy Hive” sounds so mindlessly catchy, but still so current and fresh.
Many of the songs on VEGA INTL. Night School would sound equally appropriate on a crowded dance floor or soundtracking a wistful Sofia Coppola movie. On this record, Neon Indian’s irony-free 80's fetishism has reached the next level. Perhaps this is the point at which nostalgia becomes so sincere that it is resurrected and becomes new again. In any case, when this album of warped pop ends on the rapturous “News from the Sun”, you’ll be floating as high as Palomo’s Prince-ly falsetto.
VEGA INTL. Night School is out on CD, vinyl and digital formats this Friday October 16.