As one-third of San Jose slowcore icons Duster—and bassist for Built to Spill from 2012 until 2019—Jason Albertini is well-versed in indie rock that peers inwards to find a way out. As the core member of Helvetia, a project that he has helmed since 2005, his pining lo-fi multi-instrumentalism delves deeper still. Alongside a rotating cast including Built to Spill alumni Scott Plouf and Jim Roth, records like 2007’s The Acrobats and 2015’s Dromomania packed in sleepyheaded guitar-pop that Albertini awakens on his tenth full-length, This Devastating Map.
When Duster returned in 2019 after almost 20 years away, Albertini, Clay Parton, and Canaan Dove Amber were both seasoned industry vets and somewhat anonymous. Recorded in Albertini’s Portland home last summer, This Devastating Map shirks the urge to recede any further, and feels more substantial than the wiry 4-track musings of Fantastic Life, released in January. After years spent reflecting just slightly beneath the surface, its candor feels like a chance for Albertini to come up for air.
Still, there’s a sunken, almost submerged quality to many of these songs—the kind of thrifty reverb glow and soft-focus hiss that makes Albertini’s studio seem to be situated not just in his basement but far below it. Stretching this quality to its outer reaches, Albertini—backed by ex-Built to Spill drummer Steve Gere and Tiburones’ Samantha Stidham on bass—fills out a sphere of sound. Fizzling melodies nestle in the furthest reaches of each channel on opener “Devastating Map,” sounding like North Carolina indie rockers Polvo on Ambien. On “Inverted,” Alex G-esque guitar shapes and tumbling drums sound like they’re climbing over each other, clamoring to be heard.
Insofar as it can be parsed, Albertini’s loose, candid lyricism has always seemed to center on first thought, best thought. Which is why, even 10 full-length LPs in, there’s still room for shortcomings and sore points. “Love Me” cuts to the chase right away: “Love me and I’ll do anything for you,” Albertini pleads. Sedate, at times foreboding tonal shifts take center stage here and on “Echo Location,” where a slow, unsteady crawl finds its feet across four minutes. In a statement accompanying the song’s video, Albertini offers some curt but telling context: “[It was] the first song I recorded after rehab. A march to the sea where I accidentally end up at some cliffs and call the whole thing off.” Sketching a giddy scene of “clean living,” sun-split lead single “Reaktor” underscores the prevailing sense of returning from the brink to hard-won domesticity. Reeled off above scorched wah-wah leads reminiscent of Doug Martsch, dishwashing and taking one’s daughter to the dentist sound akin to bliss.
If the self-described “desperate, purring distress” of Duster’s paeans to summer days spent inside your head felt uniquely slo-mo, This Devastating Map almost comes to a grinding halt. But like meteors in the night sky, even the briefest songs leave lasting impressions. Maybe it’s that the stakes seem so low, or that the songs demand so little, but the way Albertini teases out quiet, spindly majesty from dread feels vital. As “Long Beach” tails off with a parting minor-key bob evoking fellow Portlanders Quasi, Helvetia’s inward-peering mystique is at all-time low, and Albertini’s growing willingness to be seen looks all the more compelling.
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