On World’s Most Stressed Out Gardener, Calgary’s kookiest songwriter/artist/animator manages to out-Chad VanGaalen himself.
I’ve had the odd COVID dream here and there over the last year, like being out in public and realizing that I remembered my mask but forgot pants. But I didn’t start having apocalyptic visions of existential dread until I started listening to World’s Most Stressed Out Gardener. With Chad VanGaalen’s seventh album proper (if I’m counting right), Calgary’s kookiest songwriter/artist/animator/gardener manages to out-Chad VanGaalen himself. World’s Most Stressed Out Gardener raises VanGaalen’s baseline level of idiosyncratic weirdness thanks to the global health crisis and goes all-in on what was already a solitary song-harvesting process. Alone in his home studio, surrounded by an assortment of instruments and unconventional noisemakers and permitting himself to be spontaneous, VanGaalen delivers a bounty of psychedelic produce.
Prone to picking and eating fruits and vegetables right off the vine of his backyard garden, VanGaalen has applied that same practice to his latest batch of songs. Nothing on the record feels overly processed and polished, and there’s little editing of ideas or impulses. Opener “Spider Milk” cross-pollinates mid-tempo lo-fi slacker rock with deeply groovy, exploding dance rhythms. Similar fusions and blends bear fruit on “Starlight” and “Inner Fire,” two songs that bristle with the anxiety and dread of spending a year living in fear and isolation. “Where Is It All Going” gets gorgeously pastoral and lush, but lyrically it’s the musical equivalent of the “This Is Fine” meme: “We would like to believe the song we are singing / but the words feel like they’ve got no meaning;” “These days keep rolling away like everyone is the same / When every step you take is like you’re forcing the motion again.” Don’t we know it?
More nightmare scenarios burst into the waking world on “Nightmare Scenarios,” bearing similar angst and oomph to Arcade Fire’s “Month of May.” But the album’s tenderest and most familiar feelings surface on “Samurai Sword,” a delightful allegory about intermittently losing the fight to bear this pandemic out. The misplaced sword stands in for our collective (in)ability to manage our dread, fear, and anxiety alone — “I really need it back to fight my way to the end… It’s simply irreplaceable, and it’s totally indestructible, plus it’s also on loan from a friend.”
Aside from all VanGaalen’s wild and wacky fever dream imagery, who among us can’t see and hear ourselves in the pleading sincerity and vulnerability of “Samurai Sword”? For all his posturing as an eccentric botanist engineering hybrid species in his musical greenhouse, there’s no denying that World’s Most Stressed Out Gardener reveals Chad VanGaalen as a very human homemaker, father, artist, dreamer, and worrier, trying to “stick the landing when the pressure’s on” (“Golden Pear”) just like each and every one of us. Here’s hoping we all wake up when it’s over in a better place than we were when it began.