Over the decade since Tyler Jackson began writing and recording as Foam Castles, his weird-ass songs and structures have evolved into something definitively his.
Of course, the 10 songs and 29 minutes of Bird Death, Jackson’s eighth full-length album, have a lineage too. A Bob Pollard vibe is inarguable; thinner traces of Robyn Hitchcock show up. Portland’s sadly dead Metal Feathers made a dent. This album’s “Inside After the Gold Rush” betrays less Neil Young gratitude than an interest in obscure, inter-referential humor — but y’know, sure. Him too. All of it.
But the most interesting element remains form and structure, not timbre or genre. As far as I can tell, Foam Castles is a meaningless term, some nice sounds strung together. There’s a sort of beachy connotation — and that’s sonically accurate — but they mean little in the world beyond the connection formed within Jackson’s brain, like two alien nodes forcibly tethered against a vast cognitive current.
This is how Jackson writes songs. Lyrics, guitar lines, structures, and harmonies are bound to one another like contorted limbs, bent to angles that make sense to the dude alone. “Infinity Episode” aborts an opening verse about “tea and whiskey” before colliding with an anxiously chill chorus of la-la-las.
As a result, Foam Castles songs offer sweet moments in songs the listener is never sure will return. Album standouts “Lyra” and “Days of Stone” offer the least guarded highs, the latter featuring the most revisitable hook on the album, but they’re still oddly assembled tracks. “The Water Moccasin Dies/Horse Divorce” are two decent ideas smooshed together for no reason, as if there’s no reason for anything. “Rhododendrons” opens all pay-attention-to-me, its shimmering guitar and straight-shot vocals seeming to promise a hit single. But it never lifts us any higher, and when the guitar solo hits at 1:15, carrying us to the end of the song, it somehow feels like a letdown. I don’t think this is any sort of failure on Jackson’s part. I think it’s true-to-life. Doubtful he thinks of it in the same terms, but he’s been squiring awesome song parts down dark alleys and into strange beds for years now. It’s part of the glory, it’s how he writes.
Stringing these ideas together, sometimes against their own will or logic, would seem to have its own reward. While they don’t always make the most immediately listenable pop songs, Jackson’s music seems resolutely honest in a way most artists spend their lives trying to find. His songs feel like they’re almost literally making meaning from scratch, sculpting discrete fragments, memories, and feelings into odd but memorable forms. If nothing else, the dude will probably stave off Alzheimer’s awhile. On the other hand, it’s also I suppose a thoroughly postmodern style of writing, with all the obscurity, loneliness, mystery, sexiness, and meaninglessness that entails.
If this style wasn’t a conscious formula before, it’s certainly become that now. As a songwriter, Jackson plays again and again with the unfinished narrative, tweaking it, aborting it, running out on it, introducing it to another idea equally beautiful. But I don’t think that’s a cleverness; that’s how the world is, I think Jackson sees, and I think I agree with him. I think he’s just reporting it.
After 10 years, Jackson plans to park the Foam Castles vehicle for awhile and focus on other projects and styles. Bird Death, pleasant and lovely as it is, does seem to carry that weight.
“Rock for Devine,” medical benefit with Foam Castles + An Anderson + Johnny Cremains + North Atlantic | March 25, 9 pm | Empire, 575 Congress St., Portland | portlandempire.com
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