California popsmith John Vanderslice built his name on his ever-curious songwriting and shape-shifting production with colorful and catchy solo albums like Life and Death of an American Fourtracker and Cellar Door. Dagger Beach follows Vanderslice's seemingly endless line of creative output, presenting itself as an album inspired by the events following a breakup, but not a "breakup album" per se. It's true that the themes here don't linger on heartbreak or agony, but there's a certain still patience to the album that comes from the somber reflection of an ending love. Recorded completely without computers, there's a certain analog-centric emptiness to the album, but not in the traditional sense of lo-fi recording or sophomoric first-take amateurism. Instead, songs glow with an insular feeling not unlike Todd Rundgren's one-man pop symphonies of the '70s or Elliott Smith's four-track demo cassettes turned heart-rending classic albums. On the brilliant "Harlequin Press," Vanderslice spells out a character-based failed-romance metaphor worthy of Blood on the Tracks-era Dylan, all over spare and softly experimental beats, coasting flute sections, and other fragmented pop segments. It's amazing that the elements work so well together, but the weird approach to intertwining emotionally distant lyrics and unconventional song structures becomes the unexpectedly strong blueprint for much of Dagger Beach. The blown-out drum sound of "How the West Was Won" threatens to bleed over onto Vanderslice's double-tracked vocals before being kept at bay by tightly arranged guitar and Mellotron sections. As he delivers lines like "Don't it feel good to be understood?," we get a sense that Vanderslice isn't bitter as much as reflective, maybe not even completely sad about the breakup but trying to figure out how to carry on afterwards. "Song for David Berman" has the same airy consistency of Robert Wyatt and the kaleidoscopic edits of "Sleep It Off" create a dense backdrop for bright vocal harmonies with a quilt of glitchy electronic rhythms, distorted marimba, and close-miked guitar tones. The match of production and songwriting keeps things interesting throughout the album without ever fading too far into self-indulgence. Even when the songs seem fragmentary and threaten to slip into their own weirdness, every weird moment seems to function in the framework of a greater unknown purpose. That sense of foggy mystery defines Dagger Beach. While it's not Vanderslice's most direct work, it's some of his most interesting. The plethora of unlikely choices adds a depth and tension to the songs, recalling a variety of unique reference points while creating the album's own remarkably strange, remarkably honest statement.
AllMusic Review by Fred Thomas