The Oberlin Review

Lord Huron Launches Sound Skyward in “Vide Noir”

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Editor’s note: This review mentions death and suicide.

Imagine an oversaturated ’60s television screen broadcasting a garbled advertisement for the services of a fortune teller. This approximates the feeling of listening to Lord Huron’s latest album, Vide Noir. This is not an analogy pulled from the void — the album’s first single, “Ancient Names (Part I)” literally stars a fortune teller, complete with crystal ball. Her domain is, however, just one stop on the nameless protagonist’s journey through time and space, which will take him from life to death and back again in this narrative-driven concept album. Whereas Lord Huron’s first two albums — Lonesome Dreams (featuring radio hit “Ends of the Earth”) and Strange Trails (culminating in “The Night We Met,” a tune claimed by the divisive Netflix series 13 Reasons Why) — told a variety of stories from the perspectives of multiple protagonists, Vide Noir presents a more conventional narrative. In summary, our hero, though he certainly never earns the title, wakes up one morning to find the love of his life gone and his bank account empty. Desperate for answers in a universe inspired by a nighttime Los Angeles — “Lost in a galaxy of cocktail bars / Blinded by the neon lights,” sings frontman Ben Schneider on the opening track, Lost in Time and Space” — he foolishly decides to devote his life to finding her. Needless to say, his journey is doomed.

Although thematically inspired by the writings of Raymond Chandler, Vide Noir has few illusions about the lone traveler stereotype. As its protagonist continually tries to assert control over his surroundings, he drowns in his obsession with finding his lost love — “The way I always look[ed] at that character was a kind of false masculinity,” Schneider elaborated in an interview with Stereogum. And in the waltzy mid-album “Wait by the River,” one of her reasons for leaving begins to crystallize: “I didn’t mean the things I said / I don’t honestly wish you were dead / I’m a fool, I’m just a man.” More can be revealed about her motivations by picking apart other songs; in “Secret of Life,” the singer recalls his lover’s experiments in the occult, in which she “summoned the Ender” — a reference to Strange Trails hit “The World Ender” — and told him she is “never gonna die.” These elements allude to his inconsequentiality in her life, a reality which he spends the entirety of the album trying to deny as he wanders that nocturnal cityscape until he’s forced to accept the crushing truth.

As ever, those wanderings provide a well of creativity for both Schneider and his collaborators. While serving as Guest DJ for NPR, Schneider framed Vide Noir as a trip from club to club, each featuring a different style of music and attracting a different audience. This approach lends every song a unique flavor, from the garage-rock stylings of “Ancient Names (Part II)” to the eerie lo-fi twang of album capper “Emerald Star.” Even when the lyrics don’t flesh out the world quite as much as they could, the music itself rises to the occasion. The impressively precise vibe is helped by the band’s choice of industry veteran Dave Fridmann, best known for his work with The Flaming Lips, to mix the album. Fridmann’s inspired distortions are a joy to hear, whether he’s pulling Schneider’s voice through a tinny wormhole as he sings “far out past the astral plane” or underlying the title track with the kind of cosmic wobble once reserved for the silver-saucer UFOs of cheesy ’60s sci-fi.

Schneider’s disarmingly dark lyrics beg for attention just as much as the music. Since Lord Huron’s inception, every song has told a story — take “Lullaby” from Lonesome Dreams, in which a partner-in-crime returns with blood on their hands, and the narrator sings them to sleep in anticipation of the inevitable reckoning. If anyone took the band’s upbeat sound at face value and assumed their themes would follow suit, Vide Noir should put that notion to rest, declaring within its first few minutes — with a temporary lull in the music, no less, just to make sure it’s heard loud and clear — “If I don’t find her, gonna tie that noose.” This is an album about the didactic pulls of life and death, with a title track that sings of “Tears of sorrow or tears of joy / Drops in my cup as my mind is destroyed / Staring into a pure black void.” Throughout Lord Huron’s discography, their narrators have variously wished to live forever, die, and rise from the grave. Vide Noir’s protagonist sounds like an amalgam of all those voices, someone who has lived and died more times than he can count and now errs on the side of the latter, in pursuit of someone who literally embodies eternal life.

Vide Noir is escapist music at its most immersive. The album’s 12 tracks constitute a true sonic odyssey, perfect for listening to on a rainy night. Although few visuals have been attached to the album beyond a short trailer, the layered instrumentation and evocative lyrics make it easy to imagine vistas of blazing neon and twinkling star-scapes. But try not to get too lost: As the narrator laments on the title track before stepping through a window in the void, “‘Where can you go when it’s all in your head?’ / These are the last words that I ever said.”

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