he phrase Emerald City denotes three geographical locations, one real, one imaginary, and one that is, perhaps, equally real and imagined: there is Seattle, putting a jovial spin on the fruits of its annual rainfall; there is the fictional capital of Frank L. Baum’s Oz; and finally there is Baghdad’s Green Zone. Although John Vanderslice’s latest album takes its name from the last, the second, too, is suggestive: both are home to hubris and hallucination, spaces devoted to fatally insupportable fantasies.
Presumably, Vanderslice means to gesture towards the effects of the government-established Emerald City, and the age of pride and paranoia in which we live, as he recorded much of the album while his French girlfriend was denied a visa by U.S. Immigration. The state of that city, it seems, has affected every city; we are all anxious, and we are all very far apart.
Still, this kind of grand, social mythology casts only a pale shadow across the album: songs like “White Dove” and “The Minaret,” along with scattered references to the month of September, can easily be taken as political allegory, if one is inclined to take them as such, but the dark anxiety alluded to by the title is largely absent. The album, like most of Vanderslice’s albums, meanders along like a pleasant afternoon: it is all fair weather and blithe breezes, fairly consistent in both tone and tempo.
In fact, the title suggests the album is Vanderslice’s own Green Zone: this is his Emerald City, his dream of a home in a land that is not his own, his visions under attack. We are all architects of our own illusions; our minds are our cities, burnished and besieged by the world outside. In “Tablespoon of Codeine,” Vanderslice describes a retreat from that world, singing “Tablespoon of codeine / Put you right to bed”; unfortunately, the song itself is equally soporific. The rest of album, however, is steady and will be satisfying for most Vanderslice fans. The first track, “Kookaburra,” is particularly winning, although not as charming as the bird itself, which takes its name from the sound of its call. (Google “albino kookaburra” for the treat of your life.)
If Cellar Door, one of Vanderslice’s earlier outings, centered on loneliness and isolation—“my family tree is me,” and so forth—Emerald City speaks of the loneliness we feel even in company, trapped in our own fantasies. No man is an island, but that doesn’t mean we can’t feel a little at sea.
Reviewed by: Elizabeth Gumport
Reviewed on: 2007-07-24