An epicycle refers to a smaller circle moving around the circumference of a larger circle; a unified shape moving around a larger unified shape. Hence, our use of the name to frame a discussion about themes within an artist's larger body of work.  Synergy!  

Thanks to the mp3, during the past ten years we've seen something akin to the rebirth of the single--which has sadly accompanied a gradual de-emphasis on the importance of the album. That's all well and good as long as we're still getting lots of good music, but I know I'm not alone in missing the widespread value placed on an artist's ability to pull a concept or theme through a series of carefully considered songs. Just the same, when artists develop a clear, original point of view throughout a career, it's similar to a drawn-out concept album that you, the listener, piece together Choose Your Own Adventure-style. This new feature applies this standard to an artist's body of work, essentially creating a mini-album from hand-picked songs throughout the artist's career.
 
Themes and concepts loom large in John Vanderslice's artistic world. Nearly every album he creates follows some overarching motif: 2002's The Life and Death of an American Fourtracker explores the solitude of a musician bound to his bedroom recording project, spiraling towards the musician's erotic fascination with his own 424 four-track recorder; 2007's Emerald City traces a thread of unease, seclusion, and paranoia through a post-9/11 landscape.

Sonically, we've seen Vanderslice move from studio wizard to acoustic troubadour to orchestral mastermind, from sound experiments to structured pop songs--but in Vanderslice's best efforts, one characteristic always shines through. Successful Vanderslice tunes tend to adhere to the central principles of crafting a good short story: a limited time frame (often a single moment), a single perspective, carefully chosen details that leave enough to the imagination to allow you to create your own backstory. The John Vanderslice Short Story Outline goes a little something like this: begin by establishing the physical setting, mirror the setting in the protagonist's mind, and then wrap the song with one encapsulating gut-punch of a phrase. Below, we trace this three-step process through three different John Vanderslice songs from three different albums.

"The Minaret" [Emerald City]
Establish the physical setting...
Vanderslice is exceptionally good at situating you right in the protagonist's world from the get-go, using a handful of simple--yet evocative--descriptors that paint a vivid picture of the entire scope of where you sit. Lingering light is portrayed in an unsettling, anxious way; the same unwelcome lingering as the World War II-era songs the American soldiers are singing. Neither setting seems appropriate for the current situation. This opposition is cleverly echoed in "Minaret"'s arrangement, where a piano riff plays throughout the entire song but sounds at odds with the sung melody. There's a push and pull going on, as if it were a single song cobbled together from two disparate ideas--or (even more aptly given the subject matter) an unsteady peace between two different opinions.

Mirror the setting in the protagonist's mindset...
The soldier sits atop a minaret--the spires that characterize Islamic mosques--surveying the bloody aftermath of conflict. It's a fitting place to reflect, given the minaret's function as a place where the call to prayer is issued. When you're looking at a scene from a high altitude, you can very literally see both sides of anything you might find yourself examining. Aptly, we get the soldier's terminal thought while he's still stationed atop the minaret.

Take 'em to church via one gut-punch phrase
"I can see both sides and it paralyzed me inside"
Distance helps you stay impartial, and being able to see both sides' motivations for staking claim to land, both sides' rationale for their beliefs and needs turns this impartiality into paralysis. It's not a uniquely modern problem, but the more information we have, the more layers of complexity get added to a situation and the less black-and-white situations appear. With unclear political motives, waging war isn't always a cure-all, making this conclusion a fitting end to a contemplation on modern warfare.


"Too Much Time" [Romanian Names]
Establish the physical setting...
We're scaling down from the global focus of "The Minaret" into problems that arise from navel-gazing mental churn. Rarely does the phrase "woke up on the sand" lead to a story about stability and happiness, and here, the roiling waves and hobo encampment setting helps the listener plunge headlong into the protagonist's contemplation of regret and self-imposed solitude ("Stone by stone/ I ended here all alone/ And brick by brick/ Walled myself from happiness").

Mirror the setting in the protagonist's mindset...
Just as in "The Minaret", this "mindset" isn't an extended self-analysis--more like a brief moment of reflection or split-second realization crystalized and extended into song-length analysis. The chorus goes "Too much time/ Too much time gone by and I can't find you if I tried." It's a succinct summation of the tyranny of free time, with no clear direction or obvious focus. It's a nice touch that the melody and arrangement have such an open, hopeful tone in contrast with the subject matter--a great parallel for a song about a man sitting in a sweeping, spacious setting with nothing but time on his hands who still feels barricaded in.

Take 'em to church via one gut-punch phrase
"Freedom is overrated"
Ouch. Agency can be a bitch, and this take is an especially crushing way to think about it. Freedom comes with responsibility and accountability for your own destiny, which is at times overwhelming to just about everyone. We get paralyzed by choice and respond with stasis, a sad but sometimes unavoidable fact of life--and as Vanderslice phrases so succinctly, it's a state that's at times more stressful than having a clear path set out for you.


"Sea Salt" [White Wilderness]
Establish the physical setting...
Once again, contrast is key here--it's sunny everywhere except where our protagonist finds himself, thoughts and anxiety and snow piling up around him, building the setting for yet another moment of rueful reflection. At this point in his canon, it's pretty clear that Vanderslice's subjects tend to enmesh themselves in traps made by their own anxiety--they're Hamlets all, ponderers instead of doers. Vanderslice recorded this track with San Francisco's Magik*Magik Orchestra, and the lush, intricate instrumentation is used to especially great effect here, where light percussion and single piano notes fall softly in the background throughout the verses, mirroring the lyrical snowfall.

Mirror the setting in the protagonist's mindset...
Self-loathing isn't something that hits you all at once--it's a gradual erosion over time.  As the snow builds, the anxiety builds--as the waves in the second verse crash, they erode the landscape, the days of your life, the chances you get, etc. The connection gets made in an obvious way, but not so obvious that you feel as though you're being beat over the head with metaphor.

Take 'em to church via one gut-punch phrase
"I was free now to go anywhere"
Tragedy is sometimes the kick in the pants you sometimes need to set you free and allow you to pursue what you want. So maybe it's fitting that the one song in this series that ends on a hopeful note is the one on the most recent album. At the end of this mini-arc, Vanderslice's characters seem to have reached an unsteady peace with themselves.