In the pre-release trailer for Era Extraña, a tired, displaced looking Alan Palomo wanders the Helsinki frost, trying to open locked doors. The clip is bookended with the Denton-born wunderkind sitting in a darkened diner, scribbling morosely into a notebook, to the wounded sound of “Heart: Decay” – the centerpiece of his new album, and the second part of a three-instrumental suite.
If all that didn’t make it abundantly clear, Era Extraña is not the same slippery, soda-pop, slacker-electro record that Psychic Chasms was. The bubble-funk is almost entirely gone, nothing resembles a game-show theme, and that much touted “like a low-rent Daft Punk” descriptor has been rendered almost completely mute. This new iteration of Neon Indian is frustratingly, but intentionally low on the hooks; all the buoyancy has been replaced with dense slabs of monolithic, serious-sounding synths. Considering that aforementioned instrumental sequence goes “Heart: Attack,” “Heart: Decay” and “Heart: Release,” it’s not hard to guess where the angst is coming from.
So that means we get songs like “Hex Girlfriend,” a seasick blur of squiggling synths and Palomo pining not-so-subtlety for a former flare. The mix is filled to the brim with a grimy, expulsing sound-attack, a sharp contrast to the relative emptiness of Chasms. The title-track comes together as a goth-pop bombast, almost M83-like in execution. “Future Sick” is a shuddering, system-reboot of frayed electronics and queasy production, “Blindside Kiss” smashes in a bulldozing, low-end rumble, and “Heart: Decay” swims deep in a wide-eyed and genuinely perturbing melancholy. These are not the standard motifs for Neon Indian circa 2009. The whole record conveys a stark sense of dread, depression, anxiety and loss; there are very little patches of light, even the poppiest moment “Polish Girl” is missing some teeth.
So where does that put Era Extraña? It’s certainly more adorned than Neon Indian’s elementary roots, but it’s also a hell of a lot less likable. Palomo doesn’t seem to be interested in making pop music anymore, and while his unique aesthetic keeps him savvy, his melodies are missing. The album has the annoying feel of someone finding his old incarnation beneath him, and instead opting for a sloppy stab at abstract ambition. That’s not to say I’d rather see the project tread water, but this thin-lipped version of the sound leaves a lot to be desired. Its clear Extraña was born out of some heady issues, and great art has come from such backdrops plenty times before (Sea Change, anyone?) Palomo however never creates a character worth rooting for; the alien textures he’s presenting might represent the pain, but without an entry-point, the issues he’s working through sound a lot more trifling than devastating. That’s hopefully an evolutionary problem and something he’ll work through next time out. Complaining about a lack of hooks can be painted as unrefined, but frankly Era Extraña hasn’t shown me why it deserves hallowed deconstruction, it may be weightier, but there’s absolutely no question which Neon Indian album has the most stick.