“Are you always fucked up at the end of the day?” asks Dave Hartley on Oak Island, his second album under the mysterious yet appropriate name Nightlands. As the bassist for haze-rock band War On Drugs, he often serves as the steady, unwavering guiding light for the group’s unwieldy combination of Tom Petty, electro-drone and rustic twang, but under the Nightlands banner, Hartley is free to shimmer, shine and shake like a disco ball rolling down the stairs. While his role as a bassist is often to provide stability, Nightlands is a project that’s constantly looking for things to destabilize: Song structures get abandoned, instruments get transformed, standards of taste get overthrown, your sense of time and place get messed with. Hartley doesn’t sound fucked up, but on Oak Island, he’s looking to fuck you up.
But this is not confrontational music. Hartley goes out of his way early on to comfort and welcome the listener, opening the album with the words, “I’d like to invite you/For just a little while/To a place I used to go/When I was only 17.” He’s crafting an imagined space, his own cubby-hole of a universe assembled from crumpled Bowie posters, faded Asimov paperbacks and busted Cronenberg VHS tapes. Like most nostalgia-based fantasies, his frame of reference is related to adolescence but not defined by it. Many of the lyrics and song titles here are wildly idealistic (“You’re My Baby”) and charmingly naive (“Born To Love”), but the music that surrounds these sentiments is prickly in execution and rambunctious in spirit. Sure, we feel like we’re living in a teenage dream, but it’s a misremembered youth and our tour guide isn’t afraid to point out the cracks in the facade.
On a track like “So Far So Long,” Hartley’s voice takes on a rich, deep tone for the verses, but when the chorus arrives, he’s swept up in a celestial choir, his heavily processed vocals stacking on each other in a baroque whoosh. It has an odd, potentially alienating effect, making the songs feel less like personal sketches—typically the model for an earnest bedroom project like this—and more like broad communal portraits. He reaches similar Kumbaya, drum-circle heights on “Nico,” which sounds like Sung Tongs-era Animal Collective spliced with INXS. It shouldn’t work, but it hangs together because of Hartley’s complete control of dynamics. The song knows when to pull back and when to charge full speed ahead into cornball territory.
And let me be clear: Oak Island is firmly entrenched in a cornball vortex. Most of the albums scans as a detour-heavy take on easy-listening and soft rock. Souped-up horns occasionally fill the mix in between the delicate pitter-patter of a drum machine, the embryonic hum of a synth and the twinkling of a guitar. There’s even one song, the peppy “I Fell In Love With A Feeling,” that sounds like ’70s AM pop beamed through a homemade satellite directly into your brain. He even throws a little Graceland into the soup toward the end of “Rolling Down The Hill,” the album’s trembling, voice-layering freak-out.
Oak Island is an album that gets weirder and more confident as it goes along, slowing down and stretching out as it comes to a close. The final pair of songs sound like a psychedelic hymnal (“Other People’s Pockets”) and a droll Magnetic Fields-like lullaby (“Looking For Rain”), respectively. Hartley sounds less youthful on these tracks, his voice taking on a wiser, more melancholy tone. “Now I’m back here looking out the window/This looks like a place I’ve known/But it will never be my own,” he sings. You can almost picture a teardrop leaving a streak of rust on his silver robo-face. He’s lead us out of the bedroom, deep into the stars and back again—always fucked up at the end of the day, but still trying.