Within the first seconds of his new album World of Hassle, Neon Indian mastermind Alan Palomo sets the stage for the next creative chapter of his life. Cheeky as always, album opener “The Wailing Mall” is a ruminant slice of sophisti-pop delicately woven with warbling synths, despondent guitars, and evocative saxophone blasts that could easily pass for a long-lost Roxy Music demo. But beyond deepening his ‘80s aesthetic references with jazzy yuppie-pop and the era’s baggie-tailored suiting, the song also unspools Palomo’s experience as a Mexican immigrant child swallowed by the all-encompassing gravity of U.S. capitalism. “The Wailing Mall” is not just a punny critique of the mirage of the American Dream but a pointed effort by Palomo to offer his audience a more personal glimpse at the man behind the thumping synthpop bangers.
It wouldn’t be accurate to describe Neon Indian as a character or alias. However, the project certainly came with a mysterious persona that anointed Palomo as the godfather of chillwave and one of the titans of 2010s indie. Back in 2017, the single “Toyota Man” established two major benchmarks in Palomo’s artistic evolution: it was his first autobiographical song and his first foray into Spanish lyrics. The song was an emotional departure from the deadpan delivery of his early records, and it followed up the hedonistic Italo-disco of 2015’s Vega Intl. Night School with intimate storytelling. It also teased a new psych-cumbia record that he eventually shelved.
“I got about 70 percent of the way there, but then I hit a wall,” Palomo tells Remezcla, speaking from his Los Angeles home. “Even though Spanish was my first language, my relationship to it was very utilitarian, so I knew finding a lyrical voice would take a while. Around that time, a lot of bilingual music started coming out of the indie sphere, and I loved it, but you could also tell who was inserting phrases like ‘Te quiero’ to throw a little salsa on it. I didn’t want these songs to feel insincere, so I decided to wait.”
On World of Hassle, Palomo prioritizes hard lessons in Spanish songwriting over previously drafted songs. The album’s lead single, “Nudista Mundial ’89,” harkens to Righeira’s campy summer anthem “Vamos a la Playa” while also enlisting Canadian slacker pop superstar Mac DeMarco to lampoon the kooky white tourists you might encounter on the same beach. The lurching grooves of “La Madrileña” instead provide a luscious background for Palomo’s elegant poetry, narrating a fleeting romance through longing glances and sensual evening breezes. Whether funny or sexy, Palomo’s quest for lyrical authenticity is ongoing. And with it, he also decided it was time to leave the Neon Indian moniker behind.
“I’d concluded a really solid trilogy of records with Neon Indian, and I knew that for the project to continue, it would have to undergo a major aesthetic overhaul,” he says. “I had this vision of myself, over the hill and desperate for a Vegas residency. Like Sid Caesar singing ‘I Should Have Taken Acid With You.’ But I didn’t want to be that guy. It’s also such an ‘80s rock cliché to have a crisis in your mid-30s and leave your band to write a sophisti-pop jazz record. It’s kind of gratuitous and obnoxious. But I’m that age and gravitating towards those sounds, so why not do my own version of it with a glint of humor?”
“It’s also such an ‘80s rock cliché to have a crisis in your mid-30s and leave your band to write a sophisti-pop jazz record. But I’m that age, and gravitating towards those sounds, so why not do my own version of it with a glint of humor?”
Palomo — who is also a filmmaker and has directed most of his music videos since Vega Intl. Night School — anchors World of Hassle‘s motifs in dandy imagery of Bryan Ferry and Sting, fog-stricken Tokyo streets, and the sleek criminal underworld of 1990s King of New York. One of the principal codes of sophisti-pop is the saxophone, which transports mid-tempo bop “Club People” to a neon-lit dance floor out of Miami Vice. Meanwhile, on “Meutrière,” performed alongside Flore Benguigui of French disco band L’Impératrice, the saxophone draws the song’s throbbing bass lines and sensual vocals into a scene akin to an ‘80s Calvin Klein perfume ad.
But as the record unfolds, Palomo’s insecurities also begin to flesh out. “Is There Nightlife After Death?” taps into bouncy grooves reminiscent of The Eagles’ disco phase while contemplating encroaching middle age and the unknown horrors that await once you’ve given up on party life. On “Big Night of Heartache,” Palomo recounts an occasion when he was broken up with right before climbing on stage, putting on a stiff smile for the public and later blaming his tears on a spicy post-show dinner. It’s uproarious storytelling but hardly ironic. It’s the same with his references, which are often retro but not nostalgic.
“So much of this work is about sharpening your production style and tailoring the strengths you already have,” he says, reflecting on the 1980s as his enduring muse. “What matters isn’t the chronological progression of, ‘Has Alan moved into the ‘90s yet?’ But more like, ‘Is the songwriting getting better?’ You know I can program a synth, but you haven’t really heard me sing. I’ve always been buried in reverb, and I’ve never sweated the lyrics in this way. I love that sophisti-pop feels cinematic. And just when I think I’ve explored enough of that era, I come upon Japanese ambient and Brazilian boogie records that blow me away. I gotta keep digging.”
Listen to World of Hassle below.