Album Review: Maxton Schulte – Retrograde Emotion

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Catharsis (noun): purification or purgation of the emotions, primarily through art.

Amid releasing two records in the span of a year with psych rock outfit The Shorelines, Santa Barbara based singer, producer and multi-instrumentalist Maxton Schulte found himself with an abundance of written material, much of which largely stemmed from significant personal experiences and feelings towards the ongoing social climate he was surrounded in. The end result manifested into a new full length project, which is “essentially, trying to make sense of my internal and external life,” he describes over a text message.

The songs Schulte delivers on his new record indeed come from a deeply personal place. Retrograde Emotion is a poised, yet emotionally intense collection of tracks that feel more like a necessary soul cleansing than a conclusive statement. Sonically, the album embarks on familiar territory for Schulte, presenting a colorful mix of psych pop and ambient rock to form a spacious, shimmery pallet of sounds, as introduced by the beautiful opening instrumental, “Levity.”

The album proceeds with “20 / 20 Television,” a pop-friendly yet funky voyage through the sounds of surf jazz. The music and lyrics on this track wade in and out of the abstract, but at certain points, Schulte’s writing becomes notably observant, then reflective, a precursor to the themes explored on the rest of the album. He revels in the world around him, on a small and immediate scale (himself), as well as a larger one (his peers), contemplating his own train of thought as much as he examines the actions of others. The repeated refrain, “there’s nothing new under the sun” speaks to the apathy and systematic thinking of young individuals who struggle with finding their own identity.

As a vocalist, Schulte leans on texture and aesthetic rather than power. His tunes (both vocals and instruments) are drenched in reverb, creating intensely dreamy soundscapes that become so engulfing, they start to lose their shape at times. But even when the songs are abstract, they have a clear direction – one of the most noticeable qualities in Schulte’s artistic prowess. His sound, which to this point has been largely invested in psychedelic effects and electric guitar, feels fully intentional. The psychedelic influences are still very much alive, in fact, they dominate a lot of the record; however, on Retrograde Emotion, the progressions are patient and subtle, never in a rush to reach their sonic apex.

This calm approach yields  “The War Between You and I,” which features a lovely vocal contribution from Brandi Rose. The track is slow paced and less punchy than the record’s other soft tunes, but its lyrical sentiment admirably expresses the internal pain caused by conflicted love. On the same note, “Shy as the Sky” starts out as a hazy ballad, with Schulte’s character wandering in search of meaning, and eventually blisters into a typhoon of warbly guitars.

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The pretty tones of the album shape the listening experience into an intimate one. Consequently, the instrumental songs end up beholding some of the warmest moments on the record. “Levity” and “Liam’s Song” both possess delicate melodies which evoke a sensation that could be affiliated with the feeling of gaining new life, while “Newport II” employs multiple acoustic guitars to paint a tender picture of sorrow or persistence, depending how one interprets the bareness of the recording.

The production on Retrograde Emotion is consistently beautiful, but the glue that holds the record together lies in the central themes of isolation and the meditations that come while enduring a period of deep reflection – all of which culminates on the final portion of the record. “An Empty Airport,” a seven-minute odyssey of cosmic surf pop, romanticizes Santa Barbara life and culture with a pristine sense of poetry. It’s Schulte’s most fully-realized display of songwriting on the record, an effortlessly rhythmic tune that is equally existential and philosophical.

Track in and track out, Retrograde Emotion admirably depicts the essence of solitude and professes the importance of being able to think for oneself. What is perhaps most exciting though, is the artistic direction that Schulte is headed in with this record. One has to believe there is a secure corner in indie rock for his brand of ambient and psychedelic music, and it’s exciting to think of him taking this sound and making it even more captivating.

Favorite tracks: 20 / 20 Television, An Empty Airport, Liam’s Song, Departure

SCORE: 8/10

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“Catharsis” definition taken from Merriam-Webster. All images from Maxton Schulte

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