Glitzed up by the perfectionist grind of working in a professional studio, the final product of a record—that taut slab of vinyl slapped onto your turntable and the compressed stream of compacted waveforms meant to serve as its digital analogue—is often a carefully constructed method of escaping the agonizing process by which it was created. The endless hours of re-amping previously recorded parts, the ravenous EQ-ing of each sound nugget, the paranoid adding and subtracting of new elements, hoping to stumble on that bulletproof arrangement that will make the idea in your head understandable to strange ears. Any artist who’s been through that ringer of self-doubt knows it all too well.
For Michael Coleman, recording under his Michael Rocketship moniker for Meaning of Love, the answer was to set up a kind of improvisational workshop. Waiting til the end to edit the results and even then spending just a week mixing it down, Coleman/Rocketship flexed his abstract pop chops on a month-long binge of recording one song a day, tuning his ear to whatever melodies and lyrics happened upon him in the moment. The result is a record where process and product merge seamlessly, slathered in a healthy dose of humid, tape-hiss fizz. From start to finish, Meaning of Love is an escapist fantasy come to life, a celebration of freedom within self-imposed confines.
Just as dreams depend on waking life for fuel, fantasy requires context, and Coleman goes right to work setting the scene with opener “Not Easy.” From within a tangled web of skuzzy percussion, Coleman rants in sing-song. His voice is almost completely unintelligible, sloshing about with distorted echoes, coming up for air only to howl that “It’s not easy / Sometimes...” before the whole affair implodes in a glitch-bomb of noise. Followup track “Phone” sees him coming into focus a bit more, riding a triplet drum machine pulse as synths warble and detune overhead. The voice is a bit clearer, but the overall effect is of a cartoon soundtrack: setting a scene of disorientation without packing too much of a narrative punch.
From here, the record erupts into a string of blissful pop tracks, and it’s in these moments of unabashed warmth that Coleman really comes out swinging. “Be A Waiter” is pure tropical schmaltz, a confessional tune about skipping town for the simpler life, best distilled in the adorably dark lyric “I want to be the one who ghosts.” Noise-pop interlude “Make Me Melting” briefly stares into an abyss of spiky guitar arpeggiations, haunting organ and propulsive drums, but then it’s back on track with “Days Gone By.” Coleman finds something truly special here, playing with some classic Beach Boys harmonies and a lumbering backbeat to conjure up a nostalgic, psychedelic shore cruise that never sounds overworked. Indeed, for all of his abstractions, his quirky takes on established forms (like the lopsided yet ethereal country stomp of “There’s A Place”) are where he connects most successfully. When he sings about escaping to heaven—in his words, “A great place to sleep / So I can rest there for eternity”—and then launches into an utterly delicious slide guitar solo, it feels like he’s halfway there already.
His first full length as Michael Rocketship after a string of EPs, Meaning of Love balances Michael Coleman’s heady experimentalism with a clear love of bold songcraft. And though he builds up a wealth of escape scenarios over the course of the record, even up to curtain-call closer “I Know,” Coleman can’t help but sound optimistic that this newest direction is the right path for him. If we believe his narration on “Eastern Seaboard,” it might be the only one left. “The place I came from / Well, it’s gone,” he sings, harmonizing over chirping guitars, “We’ve come so far / So far to go / I can do more.” Given that his pace of work seems to be kicking into frantic overdrive, Michael Rocketship might well make good on that promise before you have time to finish spinning this one.