This is the first line from Nat Lyon’s press release for his new album, New England Paradigm Shift. It’s a line I keep coming back to as I try to decipher my feelings about this album. On the one hand, I really want to give it a glowing recommendation: This is a quality album full of intriguing sonic structures, personal lyrics, and looped noise feedback collages, engineered by Emperor X himself, Chad Matheny. Nat Lyon plays every instrument on the album, and warmly articulates a musical vision clearly in line with Matheny’s skewed lo-fi wonderland of angst and joy. On the other hand, there are problems that I have with this album that just won’t go away. Some of the lyrics seem overly simplistic and flat compared to the experimental soundscapes, like, “I’m finally done with the sea / but the sea is not finished yet, with me.” The songs tend to blur together a bit, with only a handful really standing out. The whole tone of the album makes it feel like Western Teleport’s little brother, (even down to the song titles) striving to reach the goodies on the top shelf but still too short to get to them.
It doesn’t feel fair comparing this album to Western Teleport, though, a magnificent album to which I often return. Yet some comparison is unavoidable, considering Emperor X was the mixing engineer responsible for deconstructing and reassembling the sound collages on the album, and Lyon wears Matheny’s influence proudly on his sleeve throughout New England Paradigm Shift. There are certainly much worse things to emulate then Matheny’s powerful, sparse songs and uncompromising vision.
Not to say Lyon is simply trying to be Emperor Y. There are sketches of Lou Barlow in the songs on New England Paradigm Shift, as well as Brian Eno, Elliott Smith, even Radiohead. Nat Lyon is not simply a disciple of Emperor X. He’s clearly a talented musician/songwriter, and I feel he has a great future. This album, it’s a pretty good album. I just can’t make the jump to calling it pretty great. Let’s go track by track:
“For People In Cars On I-95” – I found this track to be an odd start to the album. It felt much more like the kind of track Modest Mouse throws into the middle of an album. A jangly guitar over a catchy drumbeat. “Don’t wanna die on 95” is the only lyric in the song, whispered by Lyon like one would whisper to themselves to try and keep hope in a stressful situation. An okay track until it gets to the cicada-like sound reverbs near the end of the song, which I really liked. Overall, I’d have liked this better if it wasn’t the intro track.
“Gin and Visions” – Reminds me of Slint’s “Good Morning Captain” at the start. It rapidly veers into a more Emperor X vibe, with a pretty straightforward rhythm and backing vocal, deteriorating in the last 50 seconds into reverb. The lyrics are okay. “You’re hooking up with carpenters / living off tips from barista tip jars.” Something about the line just sounds awkward to me. Not that there’s anything awkward about hooking up with a carpenter, as long as they’re not wearing their tool belt.
“Boat Wrights Daughter I North Cove” – One of my least favorite tracks. I found it flat, and the arrangement didn’t do much for me. Oddly enough, this track has some of the better lyrics of the album. I just wish the instrumentation around it was more compelling.
“Field Notes From Eastern Uplands” – Luckily this song follows closely behind to crank out the album’s most energetic track. This is definitely the track you play first for people who haven’t heard the album. I really dug this track, from the jangling guitars, driving rhythm, and the way it stands out distinctly from the rest of the album. It’s the most robust-sounding song on the album, and Lyon’s lyrics fit well with the sonic framework. The sparseness at the end provides a fitting punctuation to the rest of the song.
“Pitched” – The track opens with a pinging-like radar, then turns into Lyon telling a story about an aborted ferry ride. Another solid song, aided by Matheny’s twisting of the track to give it a little nuance, and a pleasant flourish at the end. Also one of only two tracks where Lyon cusses, which makes it stand out on an otherwise rather clean album.
“Fox Sighting 1” – Has a cool creepy hollowness going for it that doesn’t really match the lyrics. If this track was “Ghost Sighting 1” instead, it would be a better fit. Lyon and Matheny get a great sound going on this track, and the “plinks” at the end are sonically satisfying. One of my favorite tracks simply for the way it feels.
“Spoke” – A good song with okay lyrics that occasionally rhyme, though I’d like to have heard something a little deeper. Like many songs on the album, it starts out in an interesting direction, then falls into a samey guitar/drum rhythm that is prevalent throughout. Being able to play all the instruments on your album is an admirable feat, yet I can’t help but wonder if the final product would’ve been more interesting if other musicians were brought in to add an X factor to the mix. Having Lyon able to play simultaneously with a drummer might do wonders to make some of the arrangements sound more alive.
“Nav Chart” – Another song that blurs together with the rest. Not terrible, but not terribly interesting, either.
“Coefficients” – Spacey and catchy, this is another track I can recommend, sung in what seems to be Lyon’s signature up and down delivery. A return to already covered ground, with a few tweaks added.
“Fox Sighting 2” – A similar ghostly sound to “Fox Sighting 1,” even repeating the lyrics from the first song. I think my problem with this album, and what keeps it from being great, is how the album feels like five songs remixed and shuffled to make a full album, rather than 12 distinct tracks.
“Ex Anthro” – The most Sonic Youth-sounding track on the album, Lee Ranaldo could’ve dropped in to lay down a guitar on this track and felt right at home. Make sure you don’t skip over this track, it’s a keeper. Most of the songs on the album feel like they’re trying to set a mood. This is one of the tracks that really succeeds. If Lyon’s next album is full of tracks like this one and “Field Notes From Eastern Uplands,” he may just have a great album on his hands.
“Paradigm Shift” – The final track ties the album together, even bringing back the first lyric on the album, “Don’t want to die on 95.” Unlike the opening track, this one is well placed at the end of the album, doing a good job of taking a final run at the themes explored throughout New England Paradigm Shift. (And props for using the word “bifurcated” in a song, even if it does feel a little forced.)
My conclusion: New England Paradigm Shift is a good, yet flawed album, showcasing the grand potential of up and coming musician Nat Lyon. It teases the listener with hints of greatness, but gets caught up revisiting the same sounds instead of exploring new ones. The album is assuredly worth your listening time at least once. Don’t be surprised if you end up purchasing two or three of the tracks of this album and adding them to your playlists. Nat Lyon has a bright future, one of which I’m excited to hear more. You should be, as well.