Unspeakable Vehicle – A Compass May Give Me Directions, But The Only Thing I Will Follow Is You – Album Review
It’s far too rare to find an album title so grandiose…am I the only one that supports these when they pop up? I can practically take the day off here altogether whenever a title is this lengthy…typing out A Compass May Give Me Directions, But The Only Thing I Will Follow Is You over and over will practically have this review writing itself! Just gonna clear a bit off space off my desk here to put my feet up…
Ahh, if it were only really that easy right? Sure I can beef up a word count by making sure I add in A Compass May Give Me Directions, But The Only Thing I Will Follow Is You at every possible opportunity I can get…but other than that, that might be the only thing that comes easy here today. Unspeakable Vehicle has been posting stuff up online from about July of last year if I’m doin’ this research correctly; and it’s impossible to tell via what’s out there whether or not this is deadly serious stuff, or made for an entirely different purpose altogether, like tossing a wrench recklessly into the gears of the music-scene’s machine just to see what might happen. Honestly, you could tell me it’s either & I’d probably believe ya.
The question really is – how much would we be telling Unspeakable Vehicle that they wouldn’t already know? I can tell them their album is extremely tough, if not outright impossible, for the average everyday listener out there to get into…because that’s a given from the moment you’d push play, and I’d imagine everyone out there would get that…quickly. But would you even make a record like A Compass May Give Me Directions, But The Only Thing I Will Follow Is You without knowing that prior beforehand? I sincerely doubt it. Records like this are purposely brash and intentionally provocative for shock value.
My main concern would be the fact that, usually in a scenario like this, the results are generally so much lazier usually, or reflect artists that simply don’t have what it takes to pull off something tightly from start to finish…but that’s not actually the case here; it’s the opposite. In fact, there’s so much effort being put into this concept record, that it’s troublesome now. Even when examined as an art project of some sort, I still have a real hard time getting into this lineup of songs in a way that I can be convinced of whatever the goal might have been at the start – and as you know, I have no problem making projects like Venetian Snares part of my main diet, and listen to tracks like “Ventolin” by Aphex Twin willingly. A concept is only ever going to be as effective as people out there can reach it…and if it’s beyond that – especially this far to the extreme, chances are that, you’ve made whatever it is, for you. As in, made without the audience in mind or a single thought about’em in the process really…which is fine when it comes to art & music – in many ways, it should be challenging to listen to or experience – but equally true as well, is my believe that all art & music should also be challenged to the nth degree. And the reality there is, if you’ve made it, you’re proud of it, and you can stand behind it…any critic’s comments would slide right off ya…because why on earth would it even matter what a guy like me might say?
As I’ve said a million times here on our pages – you do you, I’ll do me…and somewhere in the middle, hopefully we’ll meet for a minute or two.
In my humble estimation, A Compass May Give Me Directions, But The Only Thing I Will Follow Is You is without question one of the toughest records I’ve ever experienced listening to, ever…to the point where it almost makes me wonder how anyone else might be able to hang with this. I’ve kinda got a reputation built on listening to anything & everything…yet the whole genetic makeup of this record from the ground up has perplexed me in ways I haven’t had my own ears challenged in years…so there’s that. While I can definitely tell ya that there’s actually a superhuman amount of work being put into making this 14 track concept record…I never had that crucial moment where I was convinced this will work overall. I had flashes…pieces…glimpses of what will clue you in to how much control over this that the international duo behind the music of Unspeakable Vehicle actually possess…trust me when I say, it’s not like they don’t know what they’re doing. They do. No one out there should be making music for the masses anyway in my opinion…real art and breakthroughs in creativity won’t occur in those scenarios, whereas one day in Unspeakable Vehicle, they may very well. I don’t think that is this particular record.
As “I’m Off” starts this experience with characters Deacon and Melody before their adventure officially begins and they start hopping around the world, landing in different spots, each of which are intended to contain a little inspiration from where they end up. You will hear…next to nothing that anyone would be able to describe as anything remotely ‘typical’ – so again, points to Unspeakable Vehicle there, as I’m sure that’s a measurement of what they were attempting to achieve. It’s remarkably confusing really – like, if you were to examine any aspect or layer or the music, you can hear there is skill there for sure – it’s just being used in ways we’d never expect or see coming. But like, listen to spots around the 3:25 mark will ya? Somehow, all this chaos seems to line itself up perfectly for a moment, after all the craziness we’d just experienced prior…and seems to smooth out just enough before this first track is completely over, that it’s almost like intentionally drawing our attention to the fact it could have all gone like this, if they’d wanted it to BE like that in the first place, which they clearly do not. But whether it’s the drums or the bass or the piano, keys, or otherwise…you’ll find you’ll listen and recognize there is talent here…they’ve just decided to go left when the world goes right is all…maybe they live in the ‘Upside Down.’ Lyrically, it might stand a chance if the mix allowed us to get to the words…which to be fair, at times it does…again, tiny breaks, glimpses, flashes…and most prevalently where the vocals are at their most confident melody/tone-wise. Personally, I don’t think they work in a way that’ll be able to keep the people onboard, but that’s my opinion, and I’d never be able to claim it’s the gospel truth for ya…I’m just a regular dude that calls it like he hears it, and maybe you’ll hear it differently somehow. When you hear what’s sung in what I suppose you’d call the main hooks of “I’m Off” around the 1:15 mark for the first time, that’s where you realize just how differently this really all could have gone; that they have the right pieces, they’re capable, and when they want to, they can deliver on more accessible sound. But that’s the key here…they’d have to want to…and I’m not sure that’s what drives them at all. Still…every time they come through that 3:25 mark, you can hear this pure surge of connectedness that seems to have been lost on the entire rest of the song, yet it pulls the ending of “I’m Off” together in such a way that it’s actually kinda uniquely brilliant. Doesn’t make it any easier to experience overall, but yeah…it’s an interesting last switch that makes you pretty much consider everything you just heard.
Even if you were to just LOOK at these songs on paper, you’d know that the work is being put in. You’ll see pre-choruses…even BRIDGES, which are damn near extinct in modern-day music now…you can find a way to appreciate the ambition, even if the results are well beyond what the majority of us could ever handle. It all depends on what the goals are of course…maybe this is an art project…maybe they’re intending this to go straight to #1 with the masses…maybe they’ve made this to satisfy their own creativity…maybe they do wanna entertain us, after all – we’ll never know the answer to any of this. When I listen to a track like “The Internal Conflict” part of me is straight up amazed at the commitment they’ve put into this lineup if I’m being entirely honest with ya. When it comes right down to it, these ideas are SO FAR outta left-field, that it would take genuine courage to follow them all the way to fruition, whatever the final results might have been at the end. The layers of muted-voices representing the media broadcasts or some sort of public announcement were one of my favorite twists in this tune for sure…and the frequencies they’ll tap into while transitioning around the middle of this track also had a ton of textures that leap out & kept me interested enough in where it all might go from there. “The Internal Conflict” swells until it’s a full-on gigantic storm of sound, and quickly dissipates before it’s over.
With Deacon and Melody now in Paris for “The City Of Lights,” for a moment, they give us a slight reprieve from the onslaught of sound they so very capable of & willing to create, and this third cut gives us a bit of space to catch our thoughts as it begins. At five-plus minutes in length and based on what we’ve experienced so far, even as you tick past the midway point of “The City Of Lights” you’re still expecting this song to detonate completely somewhere along the way, like we’ve all tripped a musical landmine, heard the click, and are just waiting for Unspeakable Vehicle to explode us all into next Friday. On this particular track, the duo of Noah Smith & Austin Perry end up deciding to take it much easier on us listeners, and keep the mellowness – their version of mellowness, mind you – as the top priority here. So you can let your guard down…at least a little, or brace yourselves less for a moment here – that epic explosion you’d be inclined to think is lurking just around the corner never comes, and “The City Of Lights” remains calmer than the vast majority of this set by comparison. I don’t know which of the two does the singing, and even more importantly, I don’t know how anyone WOULD sing to the design of the songs in this set-list to begin with…it’s beyond perplexing, it’s a genuine achievement in that sense. To be 100% fair, most singers wouldn’t even dare to attempt finding their way into these songs, because it would be an endless challenge for just about anyone & everyone. Whether or not these vocals work is another story altogether…again, if we’re talking accessibility, the answer is no – but if we’re talking art, then sure. Anyhow…I guess it could be said that a more spread-out vibe like “The City Of Lights” has might stand a better chance of making a favorable impression when reckoning with the court of public opinion…I really couldn’t tell ya what people would think of Unspeakable Vehicle’s A Compass May Give Me Directions, But The Only Thing I Will Follow Is You – it’s just that much different from anything you’ve likely ever listened to. There’s value in uniqueness for sure…but it’s extremely tough to say how many people out there will be able to both catch onto & keep up to what these two dudes are creating 100%.
“Marching Thru / Where Have You Gone, You Shining Star” was an instant standout in a more positive direction for what ears out there could potentially absorb & the people can tangibly latch onto. I’ll admit, that in itself seemed like a twist whether intentional or not…and it was certainly surprising to find in a song where Unspeakable Vehicle has over eight & a half minutes to get as wild as they’d want to. While there’s still no argument to be made on the artistic & avant-garde experimentalism in the nature of their song structures, they also work with a more repetitive lyrical design here that’s actually quite effective, and have multiple highlights in just about every department along the way. Vocally, it’s likely always going to feel a bit uneven to a degree or two, whether it’s the mix or the energy or the tone – but I would imagine just about everyone out there listening will feel like they’ve got a much better chance of hangin’ out with Unspeakable Vehicle on “Marching Thru / Where Have You Gone, You Shining Star.” For a song this long and a band already proven to push the boundaries of art & music further than just about anything you can think of by track three…this cut ends up being one of the most surprising twists on the whole record by shifting its accessibility towards us just that much more, and opening up the doors of opportunity for all kinds of listeners to find their way in here as their characters storm through the streets of Berlin, before they get separated, which causes the shift into the song’s second-half & a totally different vibe. And if I’m being real with ya, I felt like both really worked well for Unspeakable Vehicle – in many ways, it felt like “Marching Thru / Where Have You Gone, You Shining Star” was my own gateway into this album & certainly understanding this whole project a lot better as well. It might not be typical music by any stretch of the imagination – but in this cut, I can hear the kind of creativity & innovation within art & music that, while it might still be in its earliest forms, is still heading somewhere. Where that somewhere stops or where they end up is anybody’s guess…but if there’s one thing to really be said about the music of Unspeakable Vehicle, it’s that they absolutely ALWAYS keep you guessing. I dunno…call me crazy, but it felt like the more time we got to spend with them here in this fourth cut, the better the results seemed to be; I suspect they’ve thrown us a bit of a lifeline here by not pushing the envelope as hard as they have been with the weirdness & wildness – you still get some, but all of “Marching Thru / Where Have You Gone, You Shining Star” feels, and sounds, so much more controlled.
Once more, I’d assume not much here is accidental at all…these dudes do know what they’re doing & make no mistake about that. You’ll drift right into the subtle serenity of “Flying” once the previous cut is over…right on into sunny & warm acoustic-based vibes & delicate instrumentation. “Flying” is undeniably…pleasant? And pretty much universally enjoyable? Wait – am I still listening to the same record or did Spotify get sneaky & switch it up on me? I’m kidding, I’m kidding – and again, I doubt I’d be telling these guys anything at all that they don’t already assume or know for a fact. They’ve been the pilots & captains of this plane all along, I’m just trying to keep “Flying” along with’em, and this gentle moment in time following the creativity of “Marching Thru / Where Have You Gone, You Shining Star” made for a great back-to-back moment on A Compass May Give Me Directions, But The Only Thing I Will Follow Is You, providing that short break we need to collect our thoughts before heading into what’s an even larger length to come in the nearly ten-minutes of “Everybody Misses Out / In-Debt Daniel” next.
Points for their imagination, I’ll definitely never take away. This nearly ten-minute cut starts with an instrumental first chapter in “Everybody Misses Out,” which according to the legend online, represents that feeling of being ignored by one-half of the relationship in what Deacon & Melody are experiencing. And then we meet some dude named Daniel for the song’s latter-half, albeit somewhat unexpectedly. Concept records are not only the toughest things to review, but they’re generally always saying multiple things, which drift inside, out, and around the core idea to support it. You’ll find many metaphorical and allegorical meanings in the words they’ve got in these tunes that reflect on life, liberty, love, and society at-large, in addition to the tale centered around the journey of its main two characters. A couple things can be, and are true when it comes right down to it – as listeners to a concept record of any kind, we nearly almost always need some kind of written explanation that fills in some gaps to the story that would otherwise be hard to include – but by that same token, when you need a concept to be fully explained in order to get it, you can understand the irony of the entire scenario. It ain’t easy to pull off in a way that listening ears will ever get it in the same way those that create it do, but also more often than not, I’d rather have that written guide like Unspeakable Vehicle has provided in a record this involved just to make sure I’m at least keeping up to 10% of what they’re layin’ down overall, which is admittedly still quite the challenge. Being as truthful as I always am…I didn’t mind the opening “Everybody Misses Out” part & never found myself turning it off…I was also a bit indifferent towards it too. When the second part begins & “In-Debt Daniel” takes over, that’s when I felt like I was interested again personally…until then, it’s a bit wandering, which echoes the intentions of their idea for sure, but maybe almost too accurately, you dig? “In-Debt Daniel” sparks it back to life around the 3:30 mark, adding in a slickly atmospheric Pop melody & vocal rhythm that has all kinds of appeal to it. It’s moments like what you’ll hear in that transition & what follows that really have you wondering about the fact that, if this is what they’re capable of, and they can sound this genuinely accessible…well…why not just DO that then? The answer is simple – the answer is art & pursuit of the unknown – the answer is loving the journey of creation & the freedom within it, the full embrace of all it offers and the sheer chance & opportunity to NOT DO something that’s simply been done a million times over & over. It’s complete proof that Unspeakable Vehicle is more than capable of playing things straight-ahead if that’s what they WANTED to do – but that’s not the purpose of this record & the mission this time around – it’s not the goal at all folks. So YES…of course as listeners, generally speaking, we appreciate moments like you’ll experience in the latter-half of this tune where Unspeakable Vehicle confirms they’ve got the chops & skills to create a sincere melody & hooks that’ll catch our attention…but you also have to recognize & acknowledge that this is actually a fragment of what the overall experience truly provides. They can be tough to love, that’s easy to admit – but they seem to somehow be conscious of that even more when it comes to their longest cuts by adding a bit more accessibility to their lengthiest ideas, and they really do offer a unique perspective on music overall that’s decisively different & unlike any other I can personally think of. To me, there’s value in that & it’s always gonna be a ride worth taking wherever it may lead…and in this particular case, I suppose it’s taken me all over the map conceptually & in sound.
Sung in a way that echoes the thoughts bouncing around in Deacon’s brain as he tries to reconcile his feelings for Melody and whether they are or aren’t reciprocal – conceptually it works, I think that comes through strong. Vocals aren’t my jam on “Tonight (In A Field Of Flowers)” and would have probably argued it would have been equally as safe to go with an instrumental/written explanation like we found on “Everybody Misses Out” earlier on, if only to preserve what’s awesome in the music without any potential awkwardness interfering. Which is a factor here, at least in my opinion…just seemed like the vocal tones were too distant & removed from what we find in the music to be a match made in heaven, you feel me? “Tonight (In A Field Of Flowers)” has a lot of creativity & melody to be found in the music that might have spoken louder on its own this time around, but the concept does resonate here in a relatable way, revealing that push/pull of the thoughts we think when questioning what love is all about.
“Avalanche (I Will Be Searching)” flips the script and has Deacon trapped while Melody is now somewhere else, realizing that she actually does love the dude after all. I do not need to tell Noah and Austin how far they drift out into left-field here…again, they know…you make music like this, you already know what the reaction is gonna be long, long before you put it out there – I’d personally be surprised if I surprised them at all with a single word I’ve said. Weighing-in at nearly nine-minutes in length, it’s the second longest cut on the record…and you get long instrumental & artistic stretches in this track that draw this duo out a bit more when it comes to putting their skills on display. Especially that drum solo! Gotta dig that…and this record kind of needed that burst of energy or lively spark right about when you hear it. Equally impressive is that we almost think it’s all over for a moment there, before the piano comes back in after a brief moment of silence to echo that hollowness of isolation & being alone with the thoughts we probably should have shared in the time we had to share them with. They trade a bit of accessibility back in exchange for a more artistic concept here and really do some clever things to bring the “Avalanche” atmosphere into the vibe of this song, whether that’s through the widespread instrumental moments, the silence, or the hushed winds blowing, there’s quite a selection of elements that stack up to what’s unquestionably another journey into the depths of the main theme. Concept records always astound me in just how much effort can be put into something that’ll fly right over the majority of the heads of people that will listen to’em…not just Unspeakable Vehicles’ new record here, but damn near all of’em when it comes right down to it…they’re nearly impossible to make.
For example…”Lunar Landings” will continue “the story of Samuel from 15 Seconds To Run” according to what you’ll read online. Okay? Cool! So who & what is that then? Because I’ve been listening, clearly – but this would be the first I’ve heard of it…so…I mean yeah…what are we continuing here exactly again? Anyhow, from there it’s all your typical, everyday story of how “Samuel has actually become an Astronaut, but he becomes increasing lonely as he misses his family. His worries only grow as he discovers his spaceship is actually flying towards a black hole.” You know, regular, run of the mill themes in music you recognize & hear all the time right? Hardly! Moments like this will have you wondering if there’s like, a whole other book or trilogy you’re supposed to have read in order to keep up with how the storyline moves, or how characters like Samuel here, or “In-Debt Daniel” from beforehand really play a role in the main tale of Deacon and Melody’s fledgling romance. I do like the space-like theme at work…I like how they’ve tied that into this particular song…as to how we’ve traveled so far that we’ve now reached outer-space I do not know, but I do like the innovative creativity they’ve applied to this track and it’s multi-faceted sound. They immediately punch us in the face with a hectic blast-off before we spiral out into the solar system with Samuel…and moments like what you’ll find around the two-minute mark present a really strong idea in the mix of melody in the vocals & atmospheric vibes. I ain’t gonna lie to ya…in context of the main story, this seems like a very far stretch to have included from a listeners perspective…but as I’ve said, any concept will always be clearest to those creating it; for the rest of us, tracks like this at the very least offer up a completely different dimension of their music.
By the time you reach “A Night At The Opera,” you should be fairly exhausted if you’re really listening & paying attention – that’s how demanding this record can be, and how much there is to be heard. It’s much harder to know what to keep & what to toss in terms of making something that’s seriously new to our ears and keeping a concept record completely cohesive. My gut tells me “A Night At The Opera” has pushed them far too far beyond most listener’s comprehension…which again, if that’s the goal then right on, we’re fairly overwhelmed altogether by this point on A Compass May Give Me Directions, But The Only Thing I Will Follow Is You with little to no chance at all of feeling otherwise. All I know is that somebody seems to perish here in the storyline…”A Night At The Opera” is the first cut that didn’t come with a description, leading us to fend for ourselves in terms of the original concept here…but no lie, it seems GRIM by the end of this part of the tale, with a fight for life resulting in the inevitability of death. Again, with there being ZERO rules for making a record like this, it’s impossible to say what should or shouldn’t be kept in its lineup, or what should be reworked to even perhaps sound better in some way, shape, or form. I felt like “A Night At The Opera” needed to be reigned-in significantly in terms of the cohesion just inside of this one idea, nevermind the whole album – but if you’ve made it this far already and you’re digging what you hear from Unspeakable Vehicle, you might just feel altogether differently. Like the rest of the record so far, there’s always those glimpses & flashes of something we can grasp onto…some tracks leave us more desperate to cling onto something than others; this is that cut for me.
Conceptually, “Forever” attempts to bring things closer together as the album starts towards the final push to the end in the last four cuts. You’ll hear name drops in the lyricism that cue you in to how the storyline unfolded along the way, and even how characters like good ol’ “In-Debt Daniel” did indeed play a role that was important to the overall tale & what Deacon & Melody experience in their adventure. Heck, I’d even argue that to a degree they end up in some decent Stereolab-esque type-vibes here in “Forever,” though of course you’ll likely find the drums are a bit more lively in this cut by Unspeakable Vehicle in this instance. Coming from the perspective of what sounds like the aftermath & epilogue that takes place directly after what we heard happen on “A Night At The Opera,” “Forever” seems to prove that the story still continues even post-mortem, and perhaps this circle of life really has been, all along. It’s a bizarre cut! I ain’t gonna lie to ya, y’all know that. Unspeakable Vehicle seems relentlessly determined to swim upstream towards uniqueness & stuff that’s never been done before, and I ultimately respect that. As with all-things-creative, wild, limitless, and free – we experience trial & error in what we create…some things work out just fine, others don’t – but both aspects teach you something important for the way forward from here. These guys are clearly comfortable with each other as artists and give each other the freedom to explore what they do in any direction they want…which is also rare & admirable too. I have moments in “Forever” where I felt like they tapped into some seriously genius stuff…both in the melody of the vocals at points, and certainly in the riotously amped-up drums that seem to roar to life on this cut, thundering away with beats & fills that definitely help set this cut apart.
You can look at things from two-ways on a track like “Psychedelic Nonsense” in terms of what’s being presented as important to this song, and to this record at-large. Remember, if we’re talkin’ concepts & all, listeners pretty much need those words coming out clear as day so that we can get to that storyline – if that’s the priority. If it’s not, then right on, go ahead and be The Strokes and sink your vocals straight into the mix and you’ll find you bring the spark of the music to the surface even more, though we might miss a lot of the details in the lyricism as a result of that choice. The majority of “Psychedelic Nonsense” is pretty much instrumental anyhow – but believe me when I tell ya, it’s far from any kind of nonsense at all…in fact, if you were to ask me, the final four & a half minutes of this very song might be THE highlight of the entire record! The creativity, skill, and sound…I mean…good lord! This is breathtaking stuff, and it really seems to bring an entirely different gear out of the tightness of Unspeakable Vehicle that we haven’t heard at all to this point so far. They’re almost in the realm of that kind of dark & murky vibe you get from the transition & breakdown of Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android” – but with sporadic energy and remarkable sound that gives this entire cut a tremendously inspired vibe instrumentally. Off-the-charts awesomeness from the drums once again, and really, the main hooks in the melody of the music create a gloriously uplifting vibe that seems to push Unspeakable Vehicle to their sensational best here. No joke…if I could hug this song I would – every time I got to this point in the record, it was like a complete breath of fresh air and that feeling of relief, knowing that you found that moment you were truly waiting for all along. You can FEEL it coming as you listen to this set – reaching it felt like triumph.
“Midnight Road” really held its own as well. Technically as far as I know & the notes I have here on the record, this all takes place in the aftermath of the story of Deacon & Melody now, with these final two cuts seeing their return home after all that adventure…and from what it sounds like, they’re going their separate ways. This is definitely one of my favorite ideas in the lineup though…by quite a degree actually – I felt like the hum of the vocals here was an absolute knockout aspect of listening to this song and a massive highlight for how a singer can connect in a variety of ways. With the vocals in general being so buried within the mix here, you end up feeling this song much more than you do really hearing anything too specific for too long…snapshots…pieces…poetry…emotion…sadness…and eventually the final goodbye. The music is once again some of the best on the record in my opinion, and for just about all the opposite reasons as the track right before – rather than rowdy, “Midnight Road” shows how stunningly powerful Unspeakable Vehicle can be at their most subtle & low-key…and personally, I’d do everything I could to keep on exploring vibes exactly like this one here. So much of this song works absolutely brilliantly, and the sensory sound you’ll experience here is what universal tunes are really all about…essentially, they take us with them here, and by the end, we feel the full weight of that goodbye.
A Compass May Give Me Directions, But The Only Thing I Will Follow Is You concludes with “Come Back To Me” – which is instrumental, sweet, gorgeous, and beautiful – and its title implies all that you really need to know about the summation of this whole story. Which I found really interesting too…because I think “Forever” is a really significant piece of this puzzle earlier on, which even kinda suggests through the writing that we will come back to each other in many different ways over the course of existence & time and all that…that is, if I’m hearing this all correctly. “Come Back To Me” gives you the comforting sound of a warm glow that feels inviting & welcoming…not so much of a plea for either to return, but a statement of fact in terms of what will actually happen, time & time again. I dunno…maybe I’m reading too much into it at this point…clearly I’ve written a lot and Unspeakable Vehicle has given my brain countless things to consider along the way…but I felt like this last instrumental spoke volumes on behalf of this story’s conclusion, subtle as it was. All-in-all…I can completely understand & recognize why this record wouldn’t be for everyone out there – show me ANY art that is – but the value of true uniqueness & the unexplored in music is always worth buying the ticket & taking the ride if you ask me.
And I suppose someone did, so there you have it.
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