Much of indie pop’s appeal stems from ephemeral pleasures. Some of the genre’s most formative practitioners were short-lived bands who pressed a few records, quietly dissolved, and watched as their influence spread across generations. Glenn Donaldson, on the other hand, has managed to rework this cycle of death and rebirth into an institution of his own. The San Francisco songwriter’s back catalog, which spans nearly three decades, is a vast family tree of pseudonyms and collaborations. Each new project slightly tweaks his ramshackle formula to extract hidden influences, whether he’s exploring gothic aesthetics as Horrid Red or weaving psychedelic folk tapestries in the Skygreen Leopards.
Since debuting in 2018, the Reds, Pinks & Purples has blossomed into Donaldson’s flagship project. Under this alias, he has released seven full-lengths of barebones, college-rock songs, interlinked with a visual shorthand of suburbanite artwork that allows fans a chance to stroll through his pastel-toned neighborhood. The lyrics take new precedence, stemming from the sort of unguarded internal monologues that take hold while taking a long walk or doing the dishes: fleeting thoughts that expand into a web of memories and self-examination. His records simply pick up where the last left off, like a series of Moleskines filled end to end. On his latest album, The Town That Cursed Your Name, Donaldson is preoccupied with industry ups-and-downs, crafting second-person sketches of bands on their last legs, casualties of scene politics, and owners of failed record labels.
Though the Reds, Pinks & Purples casts Donaldson as a lovable sad sack in the vein of Another Sunny Day frontman Harvey Williams or the Field Mice’s Bobby Wratten, his writing embodies the adolescent angst of Sarah Records from a more seasoned perspective. He maintains the foggy tufts of reverb and sing-song melodies of his predecessors, but his lyrics trade unrequited crushes for more practical pining. On “Life in the Void,” he struggles with feelings of futility, counting his blessings with a knockout dose of cynicism. “Just over minimum wage,” he sings. “I guess you’re lucky just to be employed/I guess you’re lucky it’s not worse.” Bleak as his outlook may be, there’s an undercurrent of optimism: verses shifting into choruses as gleaming leads peek through a canopy of feedback. “You don’t want to live like that, you don’t want to work that hard,” Donaldson adds during the coda, a reminder that living for art ultimately outweighs the adversity.
On “Mistakes (Too Many to Name),” Donaldson translates moping into celebration, juxtaposing a self-deprecating refrain with four-on-the-floor tambourine and snares and victorious, pealing guitars. “I made every mistake you could make,” he sings, and it sounds like a rallying cry until he interrupts the thought with a shock of dreamlike imagery: “Breaking down in the open fields of flowers that we found.” It’s a strange detour, but it reiterates the thesis of his solo project: Donaldson searches for pockets of transcendence within ennui. Occasionally, he leans too far into impressionism. “Burning Sunflowers” is a collage of imagery—summer skies, sun on skin, oddly attractive scraps of litter—that can’t coalesce without a larger narrative to guide them. Instead, the song feels as blurry as its instrumentation, its beauty too self-evident. Donaldson’s best work hides allure within a bigger picture, like a jangle-pop egg hunt.
The Town That Cursed Your Name is bookended with odes to bands that never made it. Opener “Too Late for an Early Grave” is classic Donaldson, a strummy mid-tempo tune that puts a frontman’s small bit of renown into sobering perspective. “Never climbed the charts, destroyed the stage,” he sighs, pitting these dreams against scenes of clocking in on sick days and grinding to pay the bills. It’s the most pessimistic entry on the record, but it sets the stage for Donaldson’s cast of nameless underdogs to rail against the drudgery of the work week. “Break Up the Band,” the final track, brings the narrative full circle, this time profiling the last days of a group, demoralized by microscopic streaming payouts and internal conflict. Most importantly, it’s a major stylistic pivot—a pop-kid pastiche of the Beatles’ “Good Night” that sidelines guitar for a winkingly melodramatic backdrop of piano and strings. The sound is unusually theatrical for a project so concerned with subtlety, but it pays off. In the world of The Town That Cursed Your Name, the tedium of dead-end work pales in comparison to the death of an artistic endeavor.
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