“Is it so strange to be alone?” Justin Vallesteros asks on the first track of his second album. He pronounces the title of the song and the album with three syllables and a question mark at the end: “nau-se-aaa?” His voice dressed in translucent effect, he sounds unsure even of his own ennui.
While Vallesteros yanked heavily from new wave on his first album as Craft Spells, on Nausea he finds more comfort in tokens from the '60s skipped through the '80s and into the present. His vocals have evaporated out of Idle Labor's boxy New Order shape into more of a Stone Roses texture. Like Stone Roses, he affects distance from his sources. The opener of the English band's 1989 self-titled record made plain what the first wave of rock 'n' roll bands had shied from saying: I wanna be adored. Vallesteros abstracts that yearning a step further, asking if it's really all that weird to feel detached and disillusioned, to find yourself far from even the desire for love.
Craft Spells makes singing about death sound like a surprisingly lightweight affair. “Take the time to know how alone you are in this world / Just to find death is on your mind,” Vallesteros sings on “Komorebi”. Piano follows his lead melody for an oddly jaunty effect. He doesn't sound too troubled to be alone and mortal. The nostalgia that runs thick in the music seems to act as a balm.
The world of Craft Spells contains more magic than Real Estate's, but both bands harbor plenty of normcore nonchalance. Both touch on their melodies so lightly. At times, Vallesteros hints at Jason Lytle's childlike pathos. “First Snow” boasts a few Grandaddy-indebted mantras, like, “Don't bring yourself down. The wind will pick you up again.” But the wind returns as an enemy, too, on “If I Could”: “You are the wind that took my all,” Vallesteros sings. The air gives and it takes. Vallesteros doesn't fight back either way.
Nausea finds Vallesteros in the limbo between seeking comfort and just giving up. It feels more strongly of his voice than Idle Labor, if only because the retrospective signifiers are blurrier. But even the most urgent songs here, the cello-aided “Dwindle” and the finale “Breaking the Angle Against the Tide”, feel hazy, indistinct. “You've wasted too much of my time,” Vallesteros condemns in a low murmur on the latter. Movie strings that are real but sound deliciously fake circulate through the song. It's a pretty moment, but not a particularly urgent one.
I almost wish Craft Spells would get ugly for a minute. I wish Vallesteros would crack open his music's veneer to show just a moment of desperation. Nausea floats beautifully on its newfound gusts of piano and string, but I listen to it waiting for a crash, or at least some kind of answer. Is it strange to be alone? Would Vallesteros rather not be? Is he railing against the certainty of his own future death, or is he at peace with it? Nausea is an album of not knowing, and that's fine. But I'd rather hear a stab at an answer, even if it's the wrong one.