If there's one thing John Vanderslice knows, it's how to write a pop song. In the past nine years, he's released seven solo albums, each of them filled with catchy drumbeats, swirling guitars and vocal harmonies. Even his most melancholy and angst-ridden albums -- 2005's Pixel Revolt and 2007's Emerald City, both about post-9/11 angst and anger -- still sound upbeat. "And what happened in September was a fake/But they're chasing demolition or remote control planes," he sings on "Tablespoon of Codeine," a track off Emerald City about a 9/11 conspiracy theorist. Vanderslice weaves drumbeats and keyboard so melodically between those paranoid words that it's tempting to forget their meaning.
Vanderslice has taken his lyrics in a different direction on Romanian Names, released today on Dead Oceans. Gone is the political proselytizing; it's replaced by love and longing. "Too Much Time" is both a slow piano ballad and torch song, telling the story of a man so lovelorn he abandoned his life to sleep on a jetty: "Stone by stone, I left my only home/ and brick by brick, walled myself from happiness."
There are more sad songs on Romanian Names. "C&O Canal," for example, is about revenge for a broken heart -- "I tracked down your friend/ And won her heart over slowly/ Then I walked away/ Hope it gets back to you some day," Vanderslice sings on the chorus. Again, Vanderslice's bitterness is paired with vocal harmonies and tinkling keys. The same goes for "Fetal Horses," a track filled with surreal lyrics but backed by brushed drums and complementing guitars.
In some ways, Romanian Names is composed like a standard pop album. It contains mostly upbeat tunes, interspersed with the occasional ballad, and more than half of the songs are about love. While it's tempting to focus on Vanderslice's pitch-perfect voice and instrumentals, in the end, his lyrics are the best part of his songwriting. The album's last track, "Hard times," describes how it feels to be left by a lover: "After the way it ended/I was bloody and bruised/I need to figure out why/ You cut me off." Vanderslice's lyrics might sound a little strange, but they are also perfectly accurate definitions of love, heartbreak, and angst--making his songs unforgettable.