This one’s for the procrastinators and the slow learners. This one’s for the bungled and the botched, for the fumbled and humbled. This one’s for the late bloomers, and ultimately, Snapshot of a Beginner is proof that sometimes, the late bloomers bloom brightest.
Eight years and four albums into it, the artistic arc of Nap Eyes finds itself tracing a line alongside frontman Nigel Chapman’s daily tai chi practice. Those first years and albums are the cold mornings in the park: the measured movements, the joint aches, the self-doubt. With each new release, an incremental and invigorating step forward. And with the end of each album and tour, a return to the beginner’s practice. And now, Snapshot of a Beginner, Nap Eyes’s boldest, most concentrated and most hi-fi album to date, a study of that repeated return and all that it can teach you.
“The fact that you’ll never reach some idealized goal of self-mastery is exciting and a very good thing,” said Chapman of both his musical and meditative endeavors. “It’s necessary to be patient and to accept whatever’s happening now. Whatever you understand today, there will always be much more to learn, and so there’s not much cause for either self-congratulation or self-negation. This is part of Suzuki’s idea of the ‘beginner’s mind’ [see: Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, 1970], that even after years of practice, a person should maintain an open-minded willingness to learn. For a true rank beginner, this attitude also serves as a potent inoculation against overly harsh self-judgment.” There’s an immediately noticeable leap in arrangement and muscle on Snapshot…, one that still holds the raw, nervous energy and the earnest, self-deprecating poetry that make Nap Eyes an enduring cult favorite. The music still brings to mind the bucolic ennui of the Silver Jews and Daniel Johnston’s jittery naïveté. But the new sheen and maturity also now brings to mind the wide-angle appeal of The Jayhawks and the addictive brightness of Green Day’s Kerplunk!.
Almost all the songs of Nap Eyes are whittled into their final form from Chapman’s unspooling, 20-minute voice-and-guitar free-writing sessions. Each member — drummer Seamus Dalton; bassist Josh Salter or guitarist Brad Loughead — then plays a crucial role in song development, composing around the idiosyncratic structures and directing the overall sound and feel of the songs. Until now, that final song construction and recording has been mostly done live in a room. But for Snapshot of a Beginner, the band went to The National’s neuvo-legendary upstate NY Long Pond Studio, working with producers Jonathan Low (Big Red Machine, The National) and James Elkington (Steve Gunn, Joan Shelley), the latter of whom also did pre-production arrangement work with the band. And my friends, this last, new piece of the puzzle has made all the damn difference. Never has Nap Eyes sounded more ferocious. There’s an enormous, pummeling guitar moment in the back half of “Primordial Soup” that feels like the tide is about to sweep Chapman’s pondering philosopher out into the deep. But then, there’s the patient, new wave of “Mystery Calling,” which may well be the thesis statement of the album, if not one of Nap Eyes’ most nuanced, entrancing compositions.
And then there’s “Mark Zuckerberg,” a hi-fi jangle-pop earworm that, at its outset, sounds like it could be the theme song from Party of Five. Less a takedown of any one specific, capitalist tech fascist than it is a poem about the confounding and beautiful swirl of modern life, it is their thoughtful, incisive Hit for The People. One minute you’re watching Facebook’s founder, pallid and grotesque, testify before Congress over your morning coffee; the next, you’ve fallen into some conspiracy theory rabbit hole, clicking and liking away. Maybe your day wraps on a long walk through the city park, watching teens bliss out with a jazz apple. And you see the matrix of all the meaning and meaninglessness in this Dance of Life. “Transcendence is all around us,” Chapman repeats, a freeing incantation and a gift to us all as the coda slows and expands. It took Nap Eyes a long time and a long practice to reach this artistic zen, but one gets the feeling throughout Snapshot of a Beginner that this balance is going to hold.