The Dream Syndicate – The Universe Inside

You can’t accuse the 21st century edition Dream Syndicate of coasting on past glories. The closest they came was 2017’s excellent How Did I Find Myself Here?, the first album with the new configuration, but in truth it seemed as much a closure upon the weight of the band’s history as it was an honest and triumphant acknowledgement of what they’d accomplished and stood for. 2019’s These Times inched in a trippier direction with “Black Light” and “Put Some Miles On” (as in Miles Davis), but largely consisted of more straightforward rock numbers that would’ve fit easily on any of group founder Steve Wynn’s many exceptional solo albums.

Nothing on those two records, or any of their 1980s output, prepared us in any manner, shape or form for The Universe Inside. We’re first given a clue by the optic-nerve-zapping cover artwork, which is what I could imagine that of Anthem of the Sun melting into if you stared at it long enough while peaking on the most potent purple microdot you could procure. Then there’s the music itself – five protracted jams that dump every psychedelic trick in the baggie into the communal stew, yet avoid sounding anything like the standard psych-rock revival nonsense you might expect. It has as much, if not more, in common with free jazz and Afrobeat as it does acid rock. This here’s the real John Coltrane Stereo Blues, stretched and spun and harnessed and ridden into an unexplored realm where, were you to actually drop acid, might bring you face to face with God, or at least Lemmy from his Hawkwind days.

Tossing timidity out the back door right off the bat, the extended ensemble – guitarist/vocalist Wynn, guitarist Jason Victor, bassist Mark Walton, keyboardist Chris Cacavas and drummer Dennis Duck, joined by Stephen McCarthy (The Long Ryders) on guitar, bass, pedal steel and sitar, Marcus Tenney on brass and Johnny Hott on percussion – launches into “The Regulator” sans seatbelts, over 20 minutes of interconnecting euphoria with a groove as thick as Turkish hash. Amid a riot of electric guitars; sitar; squalling sax and trumpets; Cacavas plinking out accents on what sounds like a Rhodes electric piano; and intermittent flare-ups of blare from unknown sources, Wynn spouts baritone beat poetry like the high priest of lowdown, the Ambassador of Soul, while airy space-age background vocals resemble tribal chants. All of this unfolds without any spotlight-hogging solos. Certain instruments ebb and glow but every bleat blast blurt and spurt is in service of the delirium of the whole. The execution is free, but not aimless – there’s a momentum that’s sustained, an intensity that swells, then wanes before another wave hits. As this glorious symphony reaches its ultimate climax of squealing and reeling, you’re dizzy and delirious from spinning inside the din. You look down at your feet and molten rock is cascading around you. Then it snuffs out suddenly, over as abruptly as it began.

After that sensory shockwave, it’s easy to look at the four other pieces on The Universe Inside as mere side dishes, but they are mindblowers in their own right. “The Longing” kicks in with more of a melty blacklight level of psychedelic rock, shrouded in a realm of echoes of your past, hitting the radar like whale calls from deep below as the sea builds to a boil. “You think you know where it’s at,” Wynn cautions. “The longing is stronger than that.”

“Apropos of Nothing” could nearly be a cosmic country song with its pedal steel undercurrent, but if you listen closely as the converging sounds rise and fall in soft tides under the pull of the moon, you’ll get a whiff of “Third Stone From the Sun.” After a midpoint organ intrusion a second wind hits, the gale reverberating off of everything.

Proceeding without a break, the wordless “Dusting Off the Rust” offers another squealing dose of psychedelic jazz, with what sounds like a sick 1925 Model T engine tooling through its first three minutes. There’s a blues harmonica honking down in the groove, and at around the seven-and-a-half minute mark an echo delay effect sounds like a jet flying overhead, but the bold, badass brass assumes command throughout, like the boss it is.

“The Slowest Rendition” opens and closes like a late ‘60s/early ‘70s Pink Floyd construction. Steve returns to the microphone with another bit of spoken lyrics, which is how most of this album’s words are delivered. Before he reverts to singing in the second half of the song, the crew has taken us on another beat-jazz excursion, each instrument doing its own thing but in psychic connection with every other instrument, the music breathing all around you.

Once it’s done, the silence sounds strange. You have to readjust your senses. You’re blitzed and shaken. You’ve been taken on a journey, and while you’re back where you began, you’re not the same.

Other than the band’s name, there’s little if anything connecting this music to the Dream Syndicate’s Paisley Underground beginnings. None of Wynn’s bands has ever dived in to this extent. It’s a tremendous work, one of the coolest damn things any of these musicians have been a part of, and I have a feeling they are fully aware of that.

As for the Dream Syndicate’s next destination? At this point, it would be folly to speculate. Perhaps they have an inkling but I can guarantee it’ll be in whatever direction their inspiration leads them. A line from “The Slowest Rendition” is apt in this case, both for the Dream Syndicate and the whole of Wynn’s musical career: “Keep moving the pieces/ Keep shuffling the deck.”

The Dream Syndicate
The Universe Inside