I first came across John Vanderslice sometime during sophomore year looking for music about computers (you can stop that snickering now). The first song of his I heard was "Bill Gates Must Die." It is about computers (which is cool) but is also about child pornography (which is not cool). Despite the song's disturbing subject matter and the fact that Vanderslice perpetrated the hoax that Microsoft was suing him for trademark infringement because the "Bill Gates" single looked like a Windows CD, I was interested enough to head over to Epitonic and consider a few of his tracks. They were okay, but I was not impressed.
My musical appreciation of Vanderslice remained dormant until sometime last year, almost a year after the release of his fourth solo album, Cellar Door, which takes its name from a quote from the film Donnie Darko. Having read a couple of reviews of the album, I was forced to reconsider him, after giving tracks from his previous albums another listen, especially Time Travel is Lonely (from the album of the same name) and Me & My 424 (from Life and Death of an American Fourtracker). Both songs have to do with technology, but I like to think that is just a concidence.
This is not to say that Cellar Door does not have good tracks in its own right. Pale Horse, the first track on the album, is an adaption of the 19th century Romantic poet Shelley's work, The Masque of Anarchy. The poem condemns the British government in the wake of the Peterloo Massacre in 1819, where 11 people were killed where cavalry disrupted a demostration against the Corn Laws in Manchester by trampling the protestors. It and Up Above the Sea, which describes the protagonist's loss of innocence through shooting a bird ("I bought a rifle / with a bushnell scope"), are what convinced me to buy the album.
The violence continues in Heated Pool and Bar, the fifth track on the album, which describes the moral ambiguity that pervades America's "War on Terror." From the song's lyrics, it is obvious that Vanderslice is against it. What is interesting about the song is that it seems to suggest that America as a whole is culpable for the excesses in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, through the closeness of the horror to the protagonist (his cousin fights FARC guerillas in Colombia; his friend searches for the Taliban in Afghanistan; he is a "bad apple" at Guantanamo). Anne-Marie Slaughter suggests a similar thesis in her essay, "The Dulling of Outrage."
My favorite track on the album is currently Coming and Going on Easy Terms. I could describe it, but I would prefer that you listened to it
[192 kbps OGG | 128 kbps MP3]. I feel a bit guilty about this, since Vanderslice offers a wide selection of songs (in DRM-free MP3) on his website. The free downloads include all of the tracks from his first solo album, Mass Suicide Occult Figurines (which takes its name from lyrics in a Neutral Milk Hotel song) and most of the songs I mentioned in this review.