"I've been listening to a lot of Beach Boys lately," I said, leaning against the steps of my old San Franciscan apartment on the corner of Broderick & Fulton in 2006. Nathan Hartley Maas turned and looked down at me past the bridge of his nose and lowered his pair of neon green-templed sunglasses. He smiled. A breeze sighed through the street as the final days of spring relaxed into the final stretch of our semester at SFSU, which seemed to recoil with the acceptance of missed deadlines and unfinished film projects left to dangle in the wind like so many unpaired socks. The Beach Boys were a pressure release valve for me at the time that I slowly rotated in those years to alleviate those worries, but I wasn't listening to "Fun, Fun, Fun."
"Which album?" He asked.
"Love You," I replied. "The one they did with 300 pound Brian Wilson in like, 1976?"
We both shared a laugh at the cosmic horror that Wilson's life had become after his mental breakdown during the sessions for Smile in 1967. Our laughter came easy that day, because of course we would never welcome such depths of misery in the future because of course we would always be young. Things like that don't happen to the young. Not to us. Right?
Love You is an undeniably uneven album, but it’s also rich with some of the most personal and specific songwriting Wilson has ever crafted, full of twilight tales about taking his young girls roller skating, watching Johnny Carson alone at night and planning date night with his wife along with a quick visit to Phil Spector's mansion and his collection of guns. The songs are inmate, paranoid and fascinating. Maas, a life-long lover of The Beach Boys, has parlayed his prodigious gift at intricate composition, much like Wilson, into an equally challenging record that roars into existence using the same motifs as Love You. Full Color Depression, the first in a series of four albums by Nathan Hartley Maas, skates in-between layers of dread, isolation and raw uncertainty. It is also heartbreaking, deeply textured and raggedly endearing.
The album kicks off with “Let’s Start A War!,” a rollicking power punk anthem that explodes with untethered abandon. “I wanna hide, hide, hide, but you keep finding my hiding place…I tell my friends I’m building a fence. I’m keeping’ you out,” Maas snarls like a surrogate frontman of a scrappier version of The Stooges - as it collides with the next track, “The History of the World.” Building upon the propulsion provided by the combative drumming of Dusty Grimm, the song quickly morphs and expands outward into a haunted dub track, then implodes back in on itself to complete the blistering one-two punch of the opening tracks.
Maas continues to burrow into fractured narratives of past is prologue: “The supermassive black star field, without a star...Through the thicket, bring a lantern/It’s always dark,” he sings on “The Great Attractor.” There’s real palpable fear of trying to come to terms with things you’re powerless to change, and alternating between states of defiance and resignation.
Nowhere is this more effective than on the stunning “They Won’t Remember Your Name,” a meditative, haunting ode to the ruthless nature of a history that either forgets or never even bothered to remember in the first place: “It’s hard to be somebody, it’s easy to be nothing…World records are broken all the time/They won’t remember your name.” Where other songwriters might employ jocularity with such a subject, Maas finds only wry clarity about the hopeless cause of fighting against the tide. To that end, the song's sparse guitar and nocturnal complimentary vocals of Madi Goldsmith offer no light to guide the listener along this desolate path, just more beautiful shadows.
“The Five O’Clock Flight To Nowhere,” with its percussive piano, twinkling chimes and sweeping string arrangements add up to an impressive tonal throwback to Wilson’s Pet Sounds-era songwriting, except with seven more layers of dusky dream and hobo reverb. “We Was Young” is an unexpected gem of 8-bit chip tune recollection at trying to re-kindle or re-imagine a path you never took: “I wanted us to fall in love. We never did. And though we still could, it wouldn’t mean as much as it would’ve when we was kids.”
As “1997,” the album’s final track melts away into neighborhood atmospheric sound and ice cream truck bells carrying the hungry eyes of children behind windows, you are left with the residue of a deeply personal journey that Maas has invited you to be a part of - a road trip of sorts. Perhaps you rode shotgun in an actual ice cream truck. You slowly cruised past the movie theatre he was embarrassed to be seen at with the girl he never fell in love with, or his parent’s house, whom he feels a metallic distance from when he finds himself on the highway underneath a storm. Somewhere in Georgia, somewhere warm.
Through layers of regret and obstinance in the face of a future that stopped returning your texts years ago, Full Color Depression borrows notes of displacement and unease from the musical corners of The Replacements, Brian Wilson, Elliott Smith and The Clash, forming its own beautiful future that’s not quite sure if it wants to exist yet. For listeners willing to make that first step into the unknown, they’ll be sure to find light along the way - but only if they’re honest about where it will lead them, not where they feel they deserve to go.
Full Color Depression by Nathan Hartley Maas is available for download on Bandcamp.