Psychedelia was once rock’s avant-garde, but half a century later, the music of mind expansion can sound frustratingly conservative. Retreating into introspection— specifically, the stoned fantasies of the ‘60s—almost feels irresponsible in a world that demands engagement with the present.
Though he lives in Los Angeles and wears his hair long, multi-instrumentalist Morgan Delt must understand this. Phase Zero, his first album since leaving Chicago retro-rock label Trouble in Mind for Sub Pop, bathes serious anxieties about contemporary life in lysergic sunlight. You only have to squint a bit to identify the shadows on the horizon. The sounds of vultures circling and windstorms brewing in so many tracks’ long, ominous outros might be your first hint.
Opener “I Don’t Wanna See What’s Happening Outside” sets up the dissonance between style and theme. Steel drum sounds splash like pebbles tossed into a stream. The buzzing in the background could be cicadas. Delt’s guitar ripples gently, his voice full of hippie sweetness. But he’s singing about witnessing, and turning away from, atrocities: “I saw bodies devoured / It’s no business of mine / You know I’m only a coward.” Given the news from Orlando, Baton Rouge, Milwaukee: it could be the song of the summer. Delt gets explicitly topical on “The System of 1000 Lies,” letting a reverent hush fall over anticapitalist salvos and clickbait clichés like “one weird trick.” More often, though, the visions of environmental apocalypse and human cruelty he buries under glittering instrumentals could come straight out of classic dystopic fiction. Phase Zero may sound like the Summer of Love, but it reverberates with the fear that winter is coming.