The decline in productivity (if not popularity) of the Elephant 6 collective’s flagship bands — Neutral Milk Hotel and Olivia Tremor Control — is usually met with a sort of grateful nostalgia. The bands’ backward-looking ’60s pop experiments predicted the rise of, and paved the way for, acts as various as Animal Collective and fellow E6ers Of Montreal. Jeff Mangum and Will Cullen Hart’s seemingly willful retreat into obscurity merely adds weight to their influence. Neither band has released an album this decade, which leaves their respective reputations pristine and makes even the most trifling hint of new material from either songwriter big news.
So when it was announced that Circulatory System, Hart’s collaborative effort with Mangum (and OTC’s Bill Doss, Music Tapes’ Julian Koster, etc.) was releasing their sophomore album, seven years after their debut, the fanfare was understandably mixed with trepidation. After making some of the best albums of the ’90s and arguably changing the face of independent pop music, any missteps following so long an absence were sure to be magnified.
Fortunately, Signal Morning delivers on the promise of its self-titled precursor, as well as its prolonged preparation, and only further secures the band’s status. It works as a comprehensive whole, made up of a kaleidoscope of fragments that lend it a depth and scope that requires multiple listens for an understanding of how they fit together so meticulously. Upon initial spins, this patchwork of melodies flies by (17 songs in about 45 minutes), and the discrete tracks fit together like a mosaic. After several repeat listens, though, tracks begin to stand out and attract attention with more authority, like the details of a Dali painting. This is a testament to Hart’s ability to fit so many ideas onto a record without it seeming crowded or unfocused.
Although the shorter interludes lend the album coherence, the longer tracks leave more of an impact when considered singly. The longest, most traditionally structured tracks (“Round Again,” “Blasting Through,” “Particle Parades”) are the highlights, both in terms of songwriting and execution. Those familiar with Hart’s cut-up method (the debut featured over fifty tracks of audio on most of its songs, which were then re-arranged and released as Inside Views) will have an idea of the care and precision necessary to produce these songs. Listing all the instruments on the album would frankly take up too much space, but the production is such that each of them is effective to the point of necessity. In lesser hands, the density of these compositions would be nearly impossible, but here every snare is crisp, every guitar is warm, every cello and piano is clean.
Signal Morning builds on the already intimidating reputation of both the band and Will Cullen Hart. It surpasses the previous Circulatory System effort, and stands to rival the best of Olivia Tremor Control’s output. After so long an absence, it is a triumph to see the songwriter’s vision so successfully comprehended and his place at the top of the indie-pop hierarchy restored.