Distancing #27: Soft Airplane - Believer Magazine
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Distancing #27: Soft Airplane

by Chris Ames
July 24th, 2020

I’m stressed at the bodega, inhaling my fetid breath through my face mask. I try to smile with my eyes at the cashier. He asks if I’m washing my hands and I say it’s all I’m doing. When I get back to the apartment, Clara notes that I bought single-ply toilet paper, but it’s okay because it’ll make it seem like we’re “using a dive bar bathroom for the next month,” like a mental vacation. We laugh and it feels good to have something in our lungs, even if it’s a bad joke. We’re incredibly fortunate and very depressed. Both can be true.

We moved from Melbourne to Brooklyn in January, leaving a rickety old house with a backyard to experience “life in the big city” one last time before settling down. Space is just space. We wanted to be in the middle of it all.

“You know we’re going to live in a box,” Clara warned.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “We’ll be out so much you won’t even notice.”

Last week we left the apartment four times, for a total of three hours. After 11 p.m., when no one else is around, we take walks along the perimeter of Prospect Park, halfheartedly pointing out flowers stubborn enough to bloom in the dark. It’s so quiet you can hear ships honking their horns through the Hudson. The only lights are from ambulances silently speeding by or glow-in-the-dark collars on dogs bounding past their owners. We cross the street anytime we see another pedestrian, trying to astral-project empathy as we duck between heaps of trash to avoid human contact. This alien version of New York is so incongruent with our mental image that we genuinely forget where we are.

During the day, we panic-read the news and produce dirty dishes. At night, we make cocktails and do crossword puzzles.

“Cellular plan, three letters,” I ask.

“DNA,” Clara says.

I don’t understand the connection between anxiety and nostalgia, but for me it’s a straight line. When I panic, I retreat to the past. As we just moved across the world, putting most of our history into storage, I don’t have much to rummage through other than my old iPod Classic. In high school, Katie put several gigs of music on it for me, an act of digital intimacy that felt like downloading someone’s entire personality. I spent weeks going through it all, but nothing hit me harder than Soft Airplane.

Strangely, being stuck inside all day has only increased my love of bedroom pop. I find myself humming these songs while doing the dishes, disinfecting the groceries, muted on conference calls with my coworkers’ pets and children darting in the background. I’ve always admired artists who are able to build elaborate worlds from the small parts around them, and no one captures the restless creativity of isolation better than Chad VanGaalen. 

A notorious homebody, VanGaalen is every DIYer’s dream: not only does he play everything on the record, but he also builds his own instruments, illustrates the cover art, and animates the music videos. Contrary to the hermetic perfectionism of other one-person acts, his world is handmade and inviting. There’s an authenticity that comes from his cheap-and-cheerful production, his willingness to show the artist’s hand. Soft Airplane blends science fiction, climate panic, quiet moments of connection, and a fixation on death into something bizarrely uplifting. VanGaalen is no doubt haunted, but his death instinct stems from a place of fascination, not morbidity. In his lyrics, someone mistakes a streetlight for the moon. Sounds from a nearby basement are his neighbor either practicing the trumpet or beating his dog. A moment admiring nature is interrupted by a plastic Ninja Turtle mask floating in the water. The world is beautiful and falling apart. Both can be true.

It takes a warped sensibility to open an album with a banjo ballad that balances the simple joy of doing laundry with the existential longing to escape your body through a ship burial—and close that same record with a three-minute stretch of machinery noise about the preferred fuel of Transformers. Through all the dread, there’s a throughline of humor, of hope.

For me and Clara, our throughline of humor and hope is an online portal called Project Cupid—a government website set up to help couples get virtually married while in quarantine. It is both the saddest and the best thing we can think of doing.

“Are we really going to get married over Zoom?” she asks.

“I’m sharing my vows now, can you see my screen?” I say, and we both smile with our eyes.

Like our days lately, Soft Airplane is jittery and nonlinear. But though it’s populated by phantoms, aliens, monsters, and mutants, it’s still an undeniably human record, a weird shrine to the power of imagination during times of crisis. While we’re all so hopelessly grounded, it might lift us out of our heads for a while.

— Chris Ames
Brooklyn, day 72

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