Much of indie pop’s appeal comes from fleeting pleasures. Some of the most formative practitioners of the genre were short-lived bands that pressed a few records, quietly disbanded, and watched their influence spread through generations. Glenn Donaldson, on the other hand, has managed to transform this cycle of death and rebirth into an institution of his own. The San Francisco composer’s back catalogue, spanning nearly three decades, is a vast family tree of pseudonyms and collaborations. Each new project slightly tweaks his ramshackle formula to draw on hidden influences, whether exploring gothic aesthetics like Horrid Red or weaving psychedelic folk tapestries in Skygreen Leopards.
Since its debut in 2018, Reds, Pinks & Purples has become Donaldson’s flagship project. Under this moniker, he’s released seven full-length barebones, college rock songs intertwined with a visual shorthand of suburban artwork that allows fans the chance to wander through his pastel-hued neighborhood. The lyrics take a new precedence, stemming from the kind of unsuspecting internal monologues that take hold while taking a long walk or doing the dishes: fleeting thoughts that expand into a web of memories and self-examination. His records simply pick up where the last one left off, like a series of Moleskines filled from start to finish. In his last album, The town that cursed your nameDonaldson is preoccupied with the ups and downs of the industry, crafting second-person sketches of bands on their last legs, victims of scene politics, and failed record label owners.
Though the Reds, Pinks & Purples cast Donaldson as a lovable sad sack in the vein of Another Sunny Day frontman Harvey Williams or Field Mice’s Bobby Wratten, his writing embodies Sarah Records teen angst from a more seasoned perspective. He maintains the hazy wisps of reverb and sing-song melodies of his predecessors, but his lyrics trade unrequited crushes for a more practical nostalgia. In “Life in the Void,” he wrestles with feelings of worthlessness, counting his blessings with a dose of cynicism that takes his breath away. “A little more than minimum wage”, he sings. “I guess you’re lucky just to have a job/I guess you’re lucky it’s not worse.” Grim though his outlook is, there’s an undercurrent of optimism: verses turn to refrains as glittering leads peer through a canopy of commentary. “You don’t want to live like this, you don’t want to work this hard,” Donaldson adds during the coda, a reminder that living for art ultimately overcomes adversity.
On “Mistakes (Too Many to Name),” Donaldson translates dejection into celebration, juxtaposing a self-deprecating chorus with tambourines and four-on-the-floor snares and victorious, pealing guitars. “I made all the mistakes you could make,” he sings, and it sounds like a rallying cry until he interrupts the thought with a barrage of dream images: “Breaking into the open fields of flowers we found.” It’s a strange detour, but he reiterates the thesis of his solo project: Donaldson seeks corners of significance within boredom. From time to time, he leans too much towards impressionism. “Burning Sunflowers” is a collage of images—summer skies, sun on skin, strangely attractive remnants of trash—that cannot be fused together without a larger narrative guiding them. Instead, the song feels as blurry as its instrumentation, its beauty all too apparent. Donaldson’s best work hides the charm within a bigger picture, like a tinkling egg hunt.
The town that cursed your name it’s backed with odes to bands that never made it. The opening track, “Too Late for an Early Grave,” is classic Donaldson, a mid-tempo tune that puts a frontman’s small renown into sobering perspective. “I never climbed the charts, I destroyed the stage,” he sighs, likening these dreams to scenes of signing in for sick days and struggling to pay the bills. It’s the most downbeat entry on the record, but he sets the stage for Donaldson’s cast of nameless underdogs to blast the week’s drudgery. “Break Up the Band,” the final track, completes the narrative circle, this time profiling the last days of a group, demoralized by microscopic streaming payments and internal conflicts. More importantly, it’s a major stylistic pivot: a pop-kid pastiche of the Beatles’ “Good Night” that ditching the guitar for a melodramatic backdrop of piano and strings. The sound is unusually theatrical for a project so concerned with subtlety, but it’s worth it. in the world of The town that cursed your namethe tedium of dead-end work pales in comparison to the death of an artistic endeavor.
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