Nap Eyes makes crooked, literate guitar pop refracted through the gray Nova Scotian rain. Their songs are equal parts shambling and sophisticated, with one eye on the dirt and one trained on the starry firmament, inhabiting a skewed world where odes to NASA, brain protein aggregation, and the Earth’s magnetic field coexist easily with lyrics about insomnia, self-reproach, and drinking too much. In the world of Nap Eyes, workaday details punctuate (and puncture) cosmic concerns, as enigmatic songwriter, singer, and rhythm guitarist Nigel Chapman wrestles with air and angels, struggling (and often failing) to reconcile the Romantic rifts, both real and imagined, that define our lives: between chaos and order; solipsism and fellowship; the anxiety of social (dis)orders both big and small; and the various intersections and oppositions of religion, art, and science.
I’m Bad Now, the most transparent and personal Nap Eyes album to date, constitutes the third chapter of an implicit, informal trilogy that includes Whine of the Mystic (2014, reissued in 2015) and Thought Rock Fish Scale (2016), which was nominated for the Polaris Music Prize. The new songs position Nigel as a “cosmical mind” in the tradition of Olaf Stapledon’s philosophical science fiction novel Star Maker (1937), an existential detective who interrogates social, psychological, and spiritual milieus for clues about the elusive nature of knowledge. In this role, the song-persona, if not the songwriter, resembles a monkish, beatifically stoned Columbo, vigilantly squinty-eyed in his metaphysical quest for self-understanding, despite ostensible bumbling on the physical plane. The technology is essentially catechismal, taking the form of questions and answers posed to assert faith, or to defend doubt. The lyrics traffic in second-person address, but the “you” is often Nigel himself, a gaze inward and not, as in the “you” of most romantic pop songs, directed outward to others. (See “I’m Bad,” the almost-title track that deletes the temporal anchor of “now,” which employs second person self-address in a country-rock inclined tune that is stylistically different than anything the band has attempted, as well as mockingly self-flagellating. “You’re so dumb,” Nigel sings to himself, diagnosing his delusions.)
And yet some of the loveliest moments on I’m Bad Now involve rare glimpses of connection, anxious invitations to alien others. The galloping rhythmic rush of “Roses” locates an external “you” that remains a mirrored embrace: “People look for their reflections/Everywhere in everyone/Some like a soft glow, some a little sharper depiction.” In “You Like to Joke Around with Me,” our hard-pressed hero is redeemed by friendship: “Last night, my friends surprised me/With gestures of kindness I’d never expect,” catalyzing a minor revelation: “Tuning yourself/To catch another’s wavelength/Sure can make a difference/In this world.” The band itself is tuned to the wavelength of succinctly stinging, guitar-centric rock and roll—in other words, and by today’s genre standards, folk music.
While Nigel composes Nap Eyes songs in their inchoate form at home in Halifax, Brad Loughead (lead guitar), Josh Salter (bass), and Seamus Dalton (drums), who live a twelve-hour drive away in Montreal, augment and arrange them, transubstantiating his skeletal, ruminative wafers into discourses that aim to transcend what Nigel, in the song “Dull Me Line,” self-laceratingly deems “bored and lazy disappointment art.” The band provides ballast and bowsprit to Nigel’s cosmical mind. The nautical metaphor is not just whimsy: Nap Eyes are all Nova Scotians by raising and temperament, acclimated to life on an Atlantic peninsula linked narrowly to the rest of North America (“Follow Me Down,” with its “broad cove” and bay, and “Boats Appear,” with its “steam trails rising from the sea,” both offer an evocative sense of place for these otherwise mental mysteries.) Brad is a physical guitarist whose lyrical grace is matched only by the dark ferocity of his feedback-laced solos. Salter and Dalton exercise an unassuming mind-meld melodicism and vigor, and their gentle thrumming lends a new sonic clarity, depth, and range to match the effortless melodies and extraordinary writing. One couplet herein suggests the exalted life-force of rhythm in the estimation of Nap Eyes: “Hearing the bass as you enter your teens/Exit your life recollecting universal themes.”
The indelible instrumentation, coupled with the calm, lucid inquisitiveness of Nigel’s voice elevate certain verses, like this one from “Follow Me Down,” to the heights of everyday poetry:
I went out walking with my headphones on
Classical Indian raga twenty minutes long
Then I listened to old American folk song
A little bit shorter, still a lot going on
Nap Eyes songs resonate because they manage to balance delicately the cryptic and the quotidian, rendering a compellingly honest equivocation without evasiveness, a relatable ambivalence without apathy. As a result, both lyrically and musically, their music articulates the urgency of youthful grace. It’s the sound of being young and alive in the city, a tenuous and impermanent counterpoise of recklessness and anxiety, archness and earnestness. So let fly the cosmical mind into the gray night, dear listener.