Midway through “Outside Blasts,” the fourth song on Circulatory System’s self-titled debut LP, lead singer/songwriter Will Cullen Hart floats a notion that might be a non-sequitur in a different setting but, here, serves as both mild joke and situational affirmation: “There’s no time/ For coming apart at the seams.” If Circulatory System, released 20 years today, is moderately concerned with positivity, cosmology, singularity, and basic elements of earth science, it is absolutely, positively obsessed with time.
The band’s members — to include Hart, John Fernandes, and Peter Erchick, assisted by a bewilderingly huge cast of Elephant 6-affiliated contributors and co-conspirators — belonged to the much-lauded Athens, Georgia psych-pop unit Olivia Tremor Control, which had gone on hiatus a year earlier. The transition from sonically scrapbooking together fried-synapse opuses about outer space and other people’s dreams to mind-bendingly chronal matters was a natural one.
“You feel it three days a week — this magical property, like time is standing still. It doesn’t seem like we’re in any time when that happens,” Hart explained to writer Matt LeMay in a 2001 Pitchfork interview. “I mean, I see people walking around but it just doesn’t seem real. And some days it does, and you’re just kind of back in everyday people’s reality.”
Madrigal sing-a-long “Forever” concludes Circulatory System with an interstitial reassurance in the round, a fairytale dreaming far beyond the happily ever after. This could just as easily be the introduction that opens this album as a coy, promissory brag on repeat: “We will live forever, and you know it’s true.” Loopily discordant opener “Yesterday’s World,” meanwhile, expresses a wish to expand the record’s time-omniscient present into the recent past.
“The meaning came today/ All the questions slipped away,” Hart admits on “The Lovely Universe,” a cosmic confection that chugs and bobs merrily along in concentric, orbital circles — Erchick’s organ blurring kaleidoscopic, Chris Bishop’s toy piano adding weird little ancillary counter-hooks, Jeff Mangum’s drums thwacking intuitively, somebody’s marvelously elemental bassline keeping everything copacetic, vaguely Merseybeat. “Just revolve around the sun/ Revolve around the sun, and believe,” our host implores, his vocal tripling on those last two words. The brass-splashed, transcendent “Days To Come (In Photographs)” slings postcards from the future back to our present. The sly, louche “Illusion” verges on country blues draped in lysergic imagery. Massed Eastern tonalities color the trippy “A Peek,” which terminates with the stoner-rock equivalent of a free-jazz outro.
Titular, lyrical, and musical circles pile up faster than Rusty Cohle’s beer cans in the first season of True Detective. There is the very real sense — magnified by the wormhole-like recurrence of certain hooks and phrases — that all 22 of these tracks are somehow happening at once. That this band hovers in a sort of eternal present where (when?) the Big Bang and dinosaurs and Jesus’ crucifixion and ancient philosophers and the industrial revolution and modern capitalism and ethical cloning and nuclear-powered starships co-exist in the same single, shining instant, that joining this crew in its woozy brand of temporal legerdemain — this simulated immortality — is possible, even easy, a set of skills or meditative properties entirely within our own reach, if we’ll just decelerate, listen, consider.
The feeling evoked throughout is one of sheer wonder; it’s like being ushered, wide-eyed and serene, into some supremely benevolent cult or a dog-eared David Wiesner picture book. Orchestral chamber pop, music-box space rock, acoustic new age, and electronic shortwave melt and meld into something as gently familiar, bizarre, and beautiful as Hart’s impressionistic cover painting. You’re tangled deep within a dark, endless quilt, and every fold contains a fresh revelation: the stop-start drift of “Prehistoric,” the sleepwalking strum and sweeping bells of “Now,” the Plato’s Cave tickler “Diary Of Wood,” the sun-stroked wobble-warp of “Your Parade,” the spindly needlepoint lullaby “Time Or Dateline,” the shaggy, delirious “Symbols And Maps.”
The spell cast was as strong on the first playthrough via a CDR a friend burned me in 2002 or 2003 as it is on the fifty-fifth or eighty-sixth go round today, courtesy of Apple Music or Bandcamp; when this band opened for the reunited Neutral Milk Hotel at Maryland’s Merriweather Post Pavilion in July 2014, the audience’s disinterested chatter couldn’t mute these songs’ endorphin-flood euphoria. That’s down to the songwriting and creative jamming-just-before-dawn camaraderie, but it’s also because Hart — tender, confident, confiding — taps into a humanist universality of spirit that Elephant 6 LPs before and since couldn’t quite access. I’m reminded, in some ways, of two indie-rock touchstones from the same general era: the Microphones’ Mount Eerie and the New Pornographers’ Mass Romantic, wherein murderers’ rows of talented musicians united to ignite and re-ignite audiences’ pleasure centers.
Consider also the sheer, world-beating power of the two Circulatory System cuts that seem to fully escape the bonds of the record’s core concept. “Joy” argues for and insists upon the primacy of its named emotion as guitars ring and ripple like spiraling celestial chimes. Hart sings tenderly here, as if to calm and comfort small children accompanying him on a magic carpet ride from one end of creation to the other, his voice dripping with awe: “We’re only made of water, sand, and stone/ We’re made of joy and make-believe/ We’re only made of sky, sky.” A carnival in a dream, “Inside Blasts” swirls and saws between yearning verses and anthemic choruses, urging us to imagine ourselves as something larger than what we’ve always known ourselves to be. “Who wants to rise above, I mean literally, tonight?” is as relatable a question as has ever been posed in rock music; Circulatory System’s achievement, or one of them, anyway, is that its own fanfares, swells, loops, and trailing echoes double as their own ecstatic answers.