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On the bouncy “C’est La Vie (Say the Casualties!),” Neon Indian lead singer Alan Palomo presents listeners with an emphatic, electric-tinged imperative: “The world is moving / Everybody tune in / To the wave and supersonic sound.” Throughout its past three albums, chillwave powerhouse Neon Indian has proved that it’s unafraid to embrace the sounds of the future. But while the band’s reliance on a wide swath of sonic flourishes—popping bubbles, clapping hands, shooting lasers—consistently instills a modern edge to its work, its dramatic lyrics often hinder its albums from being truly exceptional electronic records. Luckily, the band’s latest effort avoids this trap; “VEGA INTL. Night School” stands as a glossy new addition to Neon Indian’s catalogue that draws on elements of the past, including the tongue-in-cheek nature of 1980s hits, to push its singular sound forward.
In the four years since releasing 2011’s “Era Extraña,” Palomo has spent time developing several side projects, including VEGA, which eschews Neon Indian’s shimmering electro-pop for a more beat-heavy aesthetic. While admirable, the stylistic risk proved to be a misfire—VEGA’s sonically middling “Well Known Pleasures,” an extended playlist of disco-influenced, synth-pop tracks, received less-than-stellar acclaim from fans and critics alike. But instead of abandoning VEGA—and its budding material—altogether, Palomo decided to merge its unique sound with that of Neon Indian to produce a joint album of sorts. Thus, “VEGA INTL. Night School,” the electronic band’s third studio album, possesses an eclectic array of influences, from 1970s dance to psychedelic surf rock to pure noise effects, rendering the listening experience more engaging than past Neon Indian offerings.
Lyrically, “Era Extraña” focused on lovelorn longing, the album itself a wistful, wide-eyed gaze on the mistakes of the past and their implications for the future. “Night School,” however, is all about the present: Its 14 tracks celebrate the electric spark of attraction, not its ashy residue. Gone are Neon Indian’s standard contemplative tracks, imbued with a dreamy romanticism. In their stead, the songs on “Night School” pulse along with a light and contagious energy, unburdened by any emotional heft. On the rollicking “Techno Clique,” Palomo waxes poetic on the joys of a casual hook-ups, cooing how “There won’t be heartbreak in the room tonight / No politic to serve / Only ticking, endless ticking / Just you and I.” Though “Night School” could occasionally benefit from some lyrical substance, there’s a newfound, addictive excitement to the music that undeniably elevates the album’s quality.
In shifting toward more lighthearted lyrics, Palomo allows the most notable aspect of “Night School” to shine: its unwavering sense of madcap irreverence. Palomo has a wild imagination, but on past efforts his experimental, goofy instrumentation has often clashed with the cloying sentiment of his songs. On his latest release, though, the singer-composer has wholeheartedly embraced the inherent eccentricity of the chillwave genre. Lead single “Annie” chronicles Palomo’s attempts to locate his missing friend, including calling her multiple times a day: “Now I try to sleep / but all I hear is the beep / Just your answering, answering machine,” he whines. And yet, the tropical bounce and the nasal, Phil Collins-style delivery of the chorus render the undeniably ominous lyrics markedly less threatening. The gravity of the situation, coupled with Palomo’s nonchalance, injects the album with a refreshing sense of humor direly needed on Era Extraña and 2009’s “Psychic Chasms.”
Within the opening minutes of “Night School,” Palomo describes himself as having a “Street level line of sight / With a head full of pesticide.” Coincidentally, “Night School” plays in a similar fashion. A marriage of slick, ordered production and the utter irreverence of 1980s pop, the whole album feels like a swirling, druggy haze, vacillating between saccharine sweet, vertiginous highs and bass-heavy, cacophonous lows. Yes, the album could use the occasional touch of seriousness, but its witty lyrics, layered, mercurial harmonic structure, and infectious peculiarity work in tandem to create Neon Indian’s best work to date.
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