You stand out in the open of a plaza that’s shaped like a lotus, looking at your shoes as you let go of a handfull of yellow balloons. It’s a gray day. So much of a gray day that the sky actually seems to be green. As the bunch of rubber, helium and ribbon transcends the first layer of the earth’s atmosphere, it quickly becomes a small yellow dot in the dusty troposphere. Whenever you see this you can’t help but wonder, what does a balloon feel like when it’s let go into the sky? You can stare at it for as long as it’s visible, but you never see it pop. No matter how many times you see it, the image still sticks with you eerily, just like Spooky Action at a Distance.
Lotus Plaza is a solo project for Lockett Pundt, who is part of the main creative force behind Deerhunter. His influence can be hard to notice sometimes next to the personality of the other main contributor to the band, Bradford Cox. Cox is an outspoken, lankey character with occasionally shocking outbursts in concert and an infamous sunken chest that is prominently displayed on one of his own solo albums under the name Atlas Sound. Regarding the time when he first met Pundt, Cox even says, “I was attracted to his melancholy, his sitting alone, staring at the ground. Like: What was the kid thinking? I immediately fell in love right then at first sight.”
Yet, as the balloons reach the stratosphere, the deer hunters become move obviously distinguishable from the distance. Atlas Sound gives an outlet for Bradford Cox’s eccentricities, concentrating his outbursts into weird pop spectacles or subatomic noise experiments or collaborations with a variety of artists. Once listening to Lotus Plaza, the contrast between the two personalities clicks, as does the reason why the two make great music together. All of Pundt’s droning, echo-soaked contributions are not only highlighted, but make listeners realize how much of an essential component they are to Deerhunter’s sound. Spooky Action at a Distance offers a fully realized and well executed record of Pundt’s style.
Just like the title implies, everything in the music seems far away. The vocals usually don’t stray too far from the same tone and are buried behind echo and overdubbing, but within that format Pundt has crafted plenty of effective vocal hooks. They are also plenty woah-oh-ohs and hey-ey-eys also present on a lot of his Deerhunter work. The guitar riffs are usually a stream of melodies, likewise distorted and traversing up and down the scales of the music staff. It all just kind of sweeps you away and carries you off into space, as if you were no heavier than a bunch of yellow balloons, crossing over into the mesosphere to dodge falling meteors.
Conceptually, Pundt seems to have perfected the art of not being noticed, of blending in, of reclusion. The chorus for the first full song on the record, “Strangers,” is literally just Pundt staring at the ground and shrugging. The entire refrain is, “Walked in and found me staring at the ground / ‘What’s wrong?’ you said / I shrugged and shook my head.” Then you realize that Pundt was probably on one form of drugs or another the whole time. The song “Monoliths” begins with “There’s no world and no God and no hate and no fun and no faith and no God / It’s just me, getting high.”
Staring off into nothing for an hour, huge silences in the middle of conversations, talking about pseudo-philosophical things like that or, say, what a balloon feels like. After emerging from a smoke-filled room is really the only context where that kind of withdrawn detachment wouldn’t just seem strange and socially awkward. That and maybe on stage at a nightclub under trippy lasers and lights in a band called Lotus Plaza.
Yet, what’s clever about Spooky Action is that it’s self-aware enough that it could even be a sort of examination of isolation and escapism. Pundt is presenting his mannerisms as an alternate way of being from the norm. The thing that’s great about the album is that from listening, unlike under the influence of certain substances, you won’t get that social paranoia that makes you think all those “Strangers” are giving you judging glances. You can just let it take you upwards.
What does it feel like to be a balloon lost in the sky, to be unable to control your ascent and just be forced to float upwards whether you want to or not? What would it feel like to know that you were going to pop–that you are crossing into the thermosphere, a layer far above anywhere a normal balloon should be able to reach? That the helium inside you is dying to rip through your rubber flesh and at any given moment the pressure could just become too much? Maybe cruising past the aurora borealis and glimpsing the deep black spotted nothing for even just one moment would be worth it.
The satellite-studded thermosphere is an appropriate place for that bunch of yellow balloons to meet their end. The last track on the record is the only totally acoustic one, “Black Buzz.” It has the lines, “And you burn all your satellites / Black buzz comes to dance with you tonight / What was becomes a never will, drawing shades down to the window sill.” At the end of “Monoliths,” Pundt sings, “One of these days, I’ll come around,” maybe like a wad of yellow careening downwards.
Passed out in your clothes with the sheets swirled up, revealing parts of the mattress, you wonder why you’ve never actually seen the rubber corpse of a balloon make it’s crash landing back to earth. Just falling down right in front of you. You’ve never even heard another person talk about that happening to them. Maybe it’s because they actually make it past the thermosphere, into the exosphere. Maybe it’s because they don’t pop, they make it and get carried off into space. Then you think to yourself, that’s kind of spooky.