Five hundred words aren’t enough in this case, so let’s just get to the point: Chad VanGaalen’s Infiniheart is one of the most varied and captivating records of 2004. The culmination of three years of bedroom recording, Infiniheart is a stunning debut record by the Calgary native, one that transcends any stereotype of a bedroom singer/songwriter. From the eerily warm production to the unorthodox song structures to the painstaking arrangement of a vast array of instruments, this spacey folk-rocker has made a name for himself with this painstakingly hard-to-find album.
When an interviewer asked VanGaalen, part of the Catch and Release recording collective, what music that inspires him, he responded with a list that included John Coltrane, Sun Ra and John Cage, then added that he listens to a lot of hip-hop. The inclusion of free-form musical stylists is no surprise; like the songs on the Microphones’ The Glow, Pt. 2, the songs on Infiniheart aren’t afraid to take off in different directions, sometimes returning to the original format, other times not. Between his willingness to experiment and a bountiful arsenal at his disposal (VanGaalen doesn’t even have the patience to list all his tools in the liner notes, which say he plays thirteen instruments “and a bunch of others” on the record), a spectacular range of dreamlike moods and sounds are created across Infiniheart‘s sixty-five minutes.
The only constant is VanGaalen’s knack for crafting a beautiful tune. One of the most traditionally gorgeous songs on the album, “After the Afterlife,” grafts VanGaalen’s melancholy Neil Young-esque voice to the acoustic riff and fills the open space with harmonica. Moments later, the creepy lyrics of “Kill Me In My Sleep” are paired with a clicking beat and grooving bass for an equally pleasant dose of pop before it organically dissolves into a flood of echoes and guitar plucking. Even a guy falling asleep at the wheel sounds good on this record; as horns and acoustic guitars slowly hobble along on “1000 Pound Eyelids,” VanGaalen ends the tune with “I’m super sorry but my eyes got really heavy/ And the last thing I remember is your smile.”
Though most of the songs could be mercilessly categorized as folk, a few of them harken back to the days of classic rock, a few point to the future. Opener “Clinicly Dead” is one of the album’s more rocking tracks, and “Echo Train” and “Red Blood” share a similar growl. The three instrumentals stick out a little more than is necessary (especially “Dolphinariums”), but their use of samples and distinctly beat-focused composition make them interesting additions to an already eclectic mix of music.
Infiniheart‘s long reach can be challenging at first, as you struggle to figure out what page VanGaalen is on. But after repeated listens, it’s clear that VanGaalen does indeed have an entire book on his hands, and he’s willing to read selections from every page. Infiniheart finds melody in complex selections of notes and sounds, a la Sufjan Stevens’s Greetings From Michigan, and the experimentation is undoubtedly a success, as VanGaalen proves that we haven’t yet exhausted the chord combinations that will yield an enjoyable tune. To hell with Dave Eggers and his elliptical irony — this is a heartbreaking work of staggering genius.