A few weeks ago, I opened up a new text message to a friend from college I hadn’t talked to in a while, and the thread that appeared revealed our last exchange was from November 2011. I had thanked him for sending the second Neon Indian album, Era Extraña, then brand new.
What this discovery showed (besides that there’s a chance I’m no longer friends with this person) is how I conceived of Neon Indian, Alan Palomo’s chillwave band and indie darling, at the cusp of the release of its new album. I listened to Era Extraña, along with some of the first, Psychic Chasms (2009), often that year—my final one in college. Saturated with warm, dreamy synths and built-in nostalgia summoning the lo-fi ‘80s, the sentiments of the music so perfectly mirrored those of mastering the tiny, comfortable universe of school while perceiving its approaching end, just like the passing summertime these albums evoked.
Neon Indian’s third album turns out to be very little like that, and I, for one, am relieved. VEGA INTL. Night School leaves behind much of the shoegazey romance for a more up-tempo, energetic feeling that runs the gamut on genres and sounds. After a short but feverish electronic intro, “Annie” begins the album with a ska beat and bright, flute-like line that recall Men at Work’s “Land Down Under”; in the middle of the album, “The Glitzy Hive” hits the same almost-parody funk falsetto of Beck’s “Debra”; and the aptly-named “Techno Clique” begins the final third of the album with the deep, thumping bass and light drum pad of a standard EDM club banger. It’s a frenetic listening experience, but a fun—and funny—one, too.
In untethering itself from somber and earnest chillwave (not that it was ever fully tethered), Neon Indian embraces pop music that is allowed to be lighter. Though much of Palomo’s singing is subsumed by the fray of intricately-layered synth voices, some lyrics stand out. They include: “Just feel alright,” “partay,” and “skin-tight neoprene.” It’s not always clear exactly what Palomo is getting at, but the sentiments—informed by a kind of dance music swagger and a mastery of retro vibes—come through loud and clear.
But just when the sentiments gel, Neon Indian has a habit of collapsing them. In more songs than not on VEGA INTL. Night School, the last ten or so seconds (sometimes more, sometimes less) pick up an entirely new sound. Sometimes, there’s a reimagining of a theme from earlier in a very different voice (the strings in “Glitzy Hive”), but occasionally it gets weirder, as in the radio scanning at the end of “Smut!” or the DJ chanting to a crowd at the end of “Slumlord.” Probably in part a consideration of how the songs flow into each other, these endings also give the impression that Neon Indian has pulled back the curtain to reveal it was messing with us the whole time, performing its genres, moods, and hinted-at stories. Call it a sense of drama or a sense of humor—either way, Neon Indian puts on a good show.