People demand a degree of continuity from bands. Gradual artistic evolution is encouraged over the course of a long career, but constant reinvention as an aesthetic mode is accepted only in a few canonized chameleons like David Bowie, and even then only after a period of introductory stability. So it's not surprising that instinctive changeling Ryland Bouchard—who crammed a David Byrne's worth of sincere musical metamorphosis into five years and four albums as the Robot Ate Me before abruptly retiring the name in 2007—has confounded critics and fans alike.
After releasing the Robot Ate Me debut album They Ate Themselves, an exercise in eclectic indie folk, on his own Swim Slowly label in 2002, Bouchard precipitously changed course two years later with double-disc follow-up On Vacation, a disturbingly catchy satire of pop music escapism in the era of the Bush Doctrine that juxtaposed upbeat, sample-based, showtune-like ditties about the Holocaust with Microphones-esque indie pop. The album attracted a gaggle of admirers, including Kill Rock Stars impresario Slim Moon, who signed the Robot Ate Me to KRS imprint 5 Rue Christine and put out the band's next two records. First came Carousel Waltz, a disciplined, orchestral folk album built on Bouchard's voice, acoustic guitar, and musings on love. Then in '06, Bouchard unveiled Good World, a preternaturally spare, fascinating album whose 17 tracks (in 22 minutes) of clarinet, drum machine, detuned piano, and uninflected falsetto bear as little resemblance to any other record in history as the previous the Robot Ate Me albums do to one another.
Bouchard recalls the release of Good World as pivotal: "At the time I thought it was a pretty normal release and I listen to it now and I'm like, 'Those songs are crazy.' The sales of that record were bad. It pushed me in the direction of knowing that I was more comfortable in an environment where I could control the scope of a release. I was burnt out." He declared the Robot Ate Me officially defunct in September 2007.
Now, a year later, Ryland Bouchard is releasing his first post-Robot material, and he's doing so under his own name, back on his own label, and completely on his own terms. In lieu of an album, Bouchard is putting out Seeds—a beautiful, limited-edition, $100 box set of new music and art objects that includes four colored-vinyl 7-inches (Seeds, Parts 1-4), a CD of almost 40 outtakes, a DVD of Super 8 music videos, a poster, T-shirt, tote bag, and a book featuring Seeds artwork by longtime collaborator Daniel Gibson.
The handmade goods are a fitting complement to Bouchard's new music, his most forthrightly personal to date, exploring the growth and decay of interpersonal relationships over Seeds' four installments and a variety of folk forms, recalling Randy Newman, Jeff Mangum, Nick Drake, and, yes, even the Robot Ate Me. Even on intimate, bare songs like gorgeous album highlight "Bye Bye Love #3," the steady woodwinds that discordantly put the surprisingly short song to bed remind us that a songwriter as strong as Bouchard retains his distinctive and lovely compositional voice regardless of the tradition in which he is working.
Ryland Bouchard releases Seeds on Saturday, November 1, at the Artistery. It will subsequently be available exclusively through swimslowly.com.