Either Light is an album for right now. Outside our windows spring is blossoming, the weather is getting milder, and birds are happily chirping as they prepare nests to nurture this year’s young. The world is returning to life. On the other side of the glass we sit in self-imposed quarantine as a highly contagious virus spreads furiously across international borders, wreaking havoc on the global economy and testing the very limits of our cultural fabric and personal sanity. This startling dichotomy is the essence of Vundabar’s most recent release, an album of ruminations from the dark side set to disarmingly upbeat melodies.
At first blush, Either Light is 11 tracks of lush indie rock and a stylistic departure for the band. Where previous albums were characterized by brash, angular six-string heroics the compositions here feature measured and restrained guitar supported by a myriad of additional sounds that pack each channel to the bursting with engaging melodies and lavish textures. This does not by any means imply that Vundabar has gone soft, quite the opposite. Instead of screaming into the void the band now stands resolute in the face of destructive forces, determined to recognize and beat back against the black with a brighter, more focused light.
It’s easy to think the world is collapsing around us as 24-hour news inundates us with doomsday prophesies that keep coming true and social media traps us in a spiraling echo chamber of our own creation, especially now as there is little else to do than remain at home staring at the screen. Alone with our thoughts and presented with such an overload of bad news as the sole companion in this socially distanced scenario, even the most stable of us would begin to desperately seek a method of escape.
A significant portion of Either Light is fixated on death, from insects violently squashed against the grill or reduced to ash in the searing heat of an automobile’s roaring engine, to the quiet passing of a friend from an overdose. But this is not a suicidal album, far from it. Vundabar does not fear the Reaper but they do not embrace him either, instead treating death with a kind of neighborly familiarity and resigned tolerance borne from acknowledging it as the inevitable end of all things. The spread of today’s pandemic underscores this, especially so in regions that have been so mortally impacted by the destructive disruption of daily life. It would have been easy for Vundabar to compose downcast music to score this record but just like the videos of Italians singing songs of happiness from their balconies Either Light’s upbeat tone and driving, forward momentum ensures that even in the face of death we can still dance our way into oblivion.
For Vundabar an impetus of these morbid thoughts is the constant, unyielding grind of the capitalist system. An economic machine designed to separate the wheat from the chaff in a crushing process that expels so much of the human harvest as discarded waste. “I was the wretched rail that takes the train away, to chase elusive dollar on some breathless day” sings vocalist Brandon Hagen on the propulsive “Burned Off,” a vivid image of the working class literally ground under the wheels of industrial progress, left behind and bolted in place as the locomotive of prosperity barrels away into the horizon on the backs of a human infrastructure. “Montage Music” cynically lampoons the wasteful nature of cultural consumerism with a bouncy TV gameshow vibe that cloyingly prescribes “a brand-new soul and a new set of clothes” as the cure for whatever is bringing you down.
The irony here is that in the face of a widespread public health emergency the global economy is in an unprecedented tailspin. Factories shut down, businesses close their doors, bars and restaurants and music venues go dark in an effort to stem the spread of the novel virus. No one is spending money, people will lose their jobs, and cracks in the marble façade of capitalism begin to show. Without workers the iron rails fall away and the train will soon find itself derailed and piled up in a ditch. This is bad, of course, but the worst thing is that world leaders seem more fixated on preventing their first-class railcar from scratching its paint than funneling resources into programs designed to protect those most as risk from irreparable damage to health and welfare. Vundabar didn’t have this specific scenario in mind when writing Either Light, but the band’s sentiments and expressions of fear and frustrations with the current system are universal and borderline prescient when viewed through the lens of current events.
Either Light is a heavy album for heavy times but as chaos unfolds around us it is important to remember that winter is over, life is returning all around us, and with proper precautions, hard work, and the support of our communities we will bounce back. In the meantime, play some Vundabar on Spotify and dance like the world is ending.