Tyler Jackson’s Foam Castles has been an ongoing, shapeshifting project since the beginning. And while these days they’re in full-band mode — a four-, sometimes five-piece consisting of members of Brenda, Jaw Gems, LQH, and Jackson’s more punkish outfit Endless Jags — Jackson has clearly found the ability to shapeshift on his own, guiding his idiosyncratic, often brilliant pop songs along unpredictable paths and permutations while remaining incredibly accessible.
The major evolution documented on Through That Door is Jackson’s affirmed commitment to shorter, more concise songs. With an effort Bob Pollard would appreciate, he’s whittled the album’s 14 tracks to a mere half an hour, trusting the listener to extract what they can from a snapshot, one that often won’t be around for a second chorus. The expert pop romp “Sycamore” quickly shakes out a shimmery, Beach Boys-y verse before crashing into a Big Star chorus, wrapping at just over two minutes. “I Lost It” is an effective resting spot, despite Jackson doing little more than hopscotching around an obscure confessional chorus. And “Romasco Burnout” sheds some intimate commentary on the culture of a Portland street. Some songs, like “Underground Interiors,” lack choruses entirely yet feel totally complete, adding to the mounting case for Jackson becoming one of Portland’s subtlest, craftiest songwriters.
If this sounds indulgent or experimental, don’t be fooled. Through That Door is simply one of the more efficient, expertly assembled local pop records released this year. The formula that Jackson is banking on is the same one that makes Guided by Voices, ice cream cones, and Snapchat popular: People will engage with something more readily if they know it’s about to expire. There’s no need to bludgeon us with repetition, and he knows as well as we do that the album’s less likely to get heard at an hour long.
Besides, as well-versed in pop structures as Jackson shows he is, his songs’ relative brevity make perfectly clear what’s important here, and it’s not the time-honored conventions of pleasing the listener, or trotting out an affected chorus three or four times until all its referents dry out. Jackson’s lyrics, inscrutable and irreconcilable as they can sometimes be, are clearly inspired by specific moments of joy, love, pain, and regret. To transubstantiate them into song, into memory, their expressions should be as fleeting as the experience. He only goes so far on “There,” a heartfelt epilogue to a past love, falsetto-ing “I’m not the first one to make you cry / You hope I won’t be the last / Your love is in the past again. / And I’m thankful for the pain / Never free from what’ll always remain.” On “Punk Leg,” the band gets almost painterly, Jackson crooning warm affirmations and bright guitar patterns over a coat of Tyler Quist’s shimmery synth chords. And “Here Comes the Temperature,” with its gauzy guitar melody and veiled come-ons, is one of the most chilled-out paeans to getting amped with a loved one there could be.