The third song on Neon Indian’s new album VEGA INTL. Night School is called "Street Level," and that’s important because it’s where Alan Palomo starts your descent. Listening to the rest of the album feels a little like gliding past sub-basements in a mine cart, helpless as you crawl below scene after scene. There’s the adult shop full of neoprene suits and seedy VHS tapes caked in dust; the underground, multi-level club where the beats get harder and the drinks get stronger with each new floor; the dripping sewers, full of freaks and criminals.
By the time you reach closer "News From the Sun (live bootleg)," that title’s taken on a new meaning: it’d take a brave courier to tell you anything about daylight at the bottom you’ve finally reached. At least it was an exciting ride.
VEGA INTL. Night School is Palomo’s third LP as the creative force behind Neon Indian, and it’s his first album in almost a half-decade. His 2009 debut Psychic Chasms placed Palomo at the forefront of "chillwave," a subgenre that was given life by an internet joke and then made real by at least a dozen eager bands. They were all interested in the same vague set of ideas: ‘80s pop music, eroded and warped synth presets, the nostalgia you feel when you’re flipping through photo albums in your parents’ basement.
Palomo's music has always been funny, weird, and lovestruck
Palomo has tried to shake the label with each new release, and it’s hard to blame him: it’s become shorthand for a lack of creativity. Even when he was writing songs with names like "Terminally Chill," his music was funny, weird, and lovestruck. "Should Have Taken Acid With You" and "Deadbeat Summer" radiate good vibes, sure, but they’re held together by an underlying sense of regret. I should’ve taken acid with you, and we’ll never connect like this again; this summer’s a deadbeat summer because I’m slogging through it without you beside me.
His new album leaves that kind of backwards-looking longing behind. It’s sexier, stranger, and more ambitious, its influences leaping from Ace of Base and Ariel Pink to Daft Punk and Prince. Each of Palomo’s full-lengths have a specific sense of place. Psychic Chasms occupied teenage bedrooms and backyards, the unlit swimming pools and unmade beds that become receptacles for pent-up lust. 2011 follow-up Era Extraña was a collection of observatory pop, romantic and lit only by starlight. VEGA INTL. Night School combines the former’s textures and the latter’s refined songwriting and moves the whole package to a seedy, nameless downtown, one lit by neon and full of subterranean secrets.
Palomo’s position within these songs has fundamentally shifted. "Deadbeat Summer" or "Polish Girl" come from the perspective of a participant; pop on "The Glitzy Hive" or "Techno Clique" and you’re dealing with an observer, someone who’s more like a tour guide or a director than a character in his own music. "Techno Clique" takes place in the first person, but it opens with a set of guidelines: "There won’t be heartbreak in the room tonight / No sentiment to speak of / No names to remember / Just you and I." And then you feel the camera start to move, detaching from Palomo, weaving in and out of bodies on the dancefloor while synth waves glow and burst into pieces overhead. You’re made to feel like you’ve been given access to a room behind a curtain, one you couldn’t have entered without your mysterious chaperone.
It’s not the only song on the album with that kind of cinematic vision. Single "Slumlord" sounds like some unholy combination of Giorgio Moroder, "Hungry Like the Wolf," and "China Girl," and it has a whole suite of characters: the scrappy young urbanites learning lessons the hard way, the uncompromising villain shaking them down for every last cent, the dead-eyed inhabitants of the neighborhood discothèque.
The album's world feels alive, and it rewards your investment
In order to achieve the kind of thematic consistency that defines VEGA INTL. Night School, Palomo had to sacrifice some of the directness of his earlier work. Psychic Chasms worked with a similar palette — synth melodies that sound like they’ve been fried in a microwave, rhythms compromised by digital decay, samples chopped up and sprinkled like bacon bits — but its songs were simpler and more conventional. Era Extraña’s fantastic singles were as clear and skyscraping as anything you’d hear from M83 or Passion Pit. There isn’t anything on VEGA INTL. Night School that works as well in isolation, and nothing here is going to pierce you the way "Polish Girl" or "Fallout" might. But the album rewards investment in its world, and that world feels fully realized — alive, even.
Those aren’t qualities typically associated with chillwave, a genre rooted in the unreal: its songs are framed by distorted memories and old video game consoles. Look at its origin story: it was invented by a pseudonymous blogger for satirical purposes. It’s all the more reason to affirm that Palomo’s left that sound behind once and for all. Enroll in his night school, and he’ll teach you a little something about nightlife; buy a ticket to his guided tour, and you’ll gain access to a vibrant underground you never knew existed.