Following his Mercury Music Prize-nominated debut album We Can Create (2007) and sophomore effort Turning The Mind (2009), one-man band James Chapman returns with Vicissitude, a more-than-solid third Maps album featuring ten songs of epic, synth-heavy songcraft primarily recorded at his Northamptonshire home on a sixteen-track recorder. The multi-year gap between albums clearly involved no small amount of soul-searching and introspection on Chapman's part, given the album's lyrical content.
Chapman largely hews to synth-pop, dreampop, and shoegaze traditions while at the same time avoiding sounding retrograde or overly derivative. Each reverb-rich song exemplifies polish, with rough edges smoothed away from every vocal, drum pattern, and keyboard detail, and melodies are generally strong, too. The ear-catching exuberance of the opener “A.M.A” belies an undercurrent of emotional anxiety (“I've been staring into the sun / But it don't feel right / Tell me I'm not the only one / Cos it don't feel right”), and consequently the album's thematic focus on confronting and working through struggles is apparent from the opening moments of the fifty-four-minute album. It's no mope-fest, however: musically speaking, Vicissitude clothes the inner unease bedeviling Chapman with ample layers of panoramic synth-pop sparkle. While “You Will Find A Way” might, in part, be characterized by ennui on a lyrical level (“Yeah, the fire burnt out long ago”), on sonic grounds the song exudes hope, even if delivered in carefully calibrated manner. One also could surrender to the luscious swoon of “Nicholas” without ever necessarily musing upon the unsettling allusions Chapman's making in the two words composing the songs' lyrics: Nicholas and violence; “Left Behind” likewise exudes a blissed-out shoegaze euphoria that's more than a little intoxicating.
When Chapman repeats the line “It's so insignificant to me” during “Insignificant Others,” it feels less like an expression of indifference than it does stoical liberation from things over which one has no control, while the serenading “Adjusted To The Darkness” takes the album out on a spirit of acceptance and resolution. Ultimately, then, the album's tone is primarily uplifting, as borne out by the message of self-acceptance infusing “This Summer” and its repeated “Forgive yourself” line and the shift in tone that occurs during “You Will Find A Way” when the words, “When all this ends, we start again,” appear.