On the Robot Ate Me’s 2002 debut, They Ate Themselves, accordion, violin, sax, bongos and harmonica collided with standard indie-rock instrumentation behind songs that sounded way better than they actually were. The two discs that make up On Vacation are even more adventurous, deepening mastermind Ryland Bouchard’s obsession with the expressive capabilities of sound and subsuming the whole project under a pretty weighty concept. And even though Bouchard doesn’t always fulfill the potential of his arrangements, On Vacation is strangely satisfying.
The first half of On Vacation‘s “conceptual landscape” (to use press release parlance) combines scratchy World War I-era dancehall samples with live instruments and found sounds. It sounds like a patchy radio broadcast from a bunker somewhere on the Western Front. The narrator mutters disturbing poetry about death, God, mass murder and politics, adding to the palpable sense of unease and isolation.
On paper, this sounds brilliant — an updated version of Tom Waits’s Rain Dogs. But in Bouchard’s world, we are obliged to swallow awkward attempts at profundity and dark irony. His idea of exploring the connection between religion and death is “Jesus and Hitler,” a song about the titular characters fucking in the backseat of a taxi. “Oh No! Oh My! (1994)” sets straight-faced lyrics about the politicization of genocide to a sprightly, sing-song melody. This “shock by contrast” tactic was employed to much greater effect by Monty Python (“The Racism Song”), whose irony, while just as obvious, was at least intended to provoke laughter. Here, it just wastes the eerie power of the disc’s brooding soundscapes.
The second disc is a more jubilant affair, a slice of happy indie pop that strives for nothing loftier than a batch of simple, catchy songs. The breeziness of the arrangements reflects the subject matter, which is less self-consciously weighty than the first disc’s; if the narrator of the first disc wants to get out of “a world where all we can do is say ‘It’s fucked up'” (“The Republican Army”), then the second disc is his escapist fantasy, his search for a place where he and a lover can “run to the suburbs and pack our bags … fly to an island with no newspapers” (“On Vacation”). In contrast to the claustrophobic irony of the first half, On Vacation‘s second half is emotionally transparent. Bouchard’s earnest rasp easily sells the sincerity of the disc’s closing mantra, “Hey, I’m alright down here/ Really, it’s okay.”
The brevity of On Vacation, which was originally released by Swim Slowly in 2004, may be its most important asset. At twenty minutes per disc, the album can be listened to in one sitting, so it’s easier to place the first disc’s self-conscious heaviness in its proper context. By itself, the first half is grating. But somehow, its frustrating romance with depth makes sense. The narrator is each of us, trying to juggle the insanity of our memories, our thoughts and the problems of the world. We try to escape by ignoring these issues, as reflected by the lightweight diversions of the second disc. It’s tempting to ask whether Bouchard sides with one approach over the other, but there are no answers to be found. Offering layers of sonic and thematic detail to unpack, On Vacation is a compelling listen.