Eight years ago, a music project named Neon Indian dropped an album named VEGA INTL. Night School. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was destined to alter my life for the better. Upon discovery, which wasn’t long past release and I think thanks to a positive review from The Needle Drop back when I watched him, I was absolutely enamored with the sound which was classically-tuned, hazy, Miami-minded electropop. I wrote about it for an awesome feature we did years ago. I wanted more, but aside from a quick 2019 single/video drop of “Toyota Man” – a resplendent protest song of sorts in the age of Trump that celebrated our Mexican and Latin siblings when they needed all the support they could get – and some COVID DJ mixes, there wasn’t much to latch onto. Well, mi gente esta de regreso con un nueva album called World of Hassle with Alan Palomo performing under his own name after being inspired by Leonard Cohen‘s I’m Your Man era, and it’s very likely the best pop-adjacent album I’ve heard since Kero Kero Bonito‘s Civilisation.
I don’t even know where to begin with talking about this album. I’m still partially in shock that we even got a new album after this long, so pressing play was surreal to the point of dissociation. Part of what made VEGA INTL. Night School and by extension Alan Palomo‘s entire-ass repertoire was his uncanny ability for sonic storytelling, using those nostalgic analog synths you’d hear in ’80s music to build up this Vice City-esque world of intrigue, sex, desire, and the inherent grime of city life. Matter of fact, Rockstar Games, you ignorant motherfuckers – you know what y’all should do? Since Grand Theft Auto VI allegedly takes place in a more modern Vice City, you should probably hire Alan Palomo here to host a throwback-style radio station and let him go HAM. I would actually consider buying the game then, you weird cornballs.
Similarly, World of Hassle has a loose story, a concept that seems at least marginally based on Palomo’s own life, but certainly based on himself as a person. Born in Monterrey, Mexico, he moved to Texas when he was five where he’s lived since. The album starts with “The Wailing Mall”, a reference the Grapevine Mills shopping mall near Dallas, TX, that acts as a cheeky, dramatized origin story for Palomo getting lost in a place made to represent the consuming sprawl of America and its culture. Being a mall, it’s got everything a growing kid needs: food court, clothes, uh… other stuff. Anyway, it’s a point for Palomo to show some of his humor in his music, something he’s always restrained despite it being a keen part of his personality:
‘I was lost at the mall in the US of A
1994, there was panic at the Payless
A little brown boy led astray
I had no star spangled manner
I knew no yippee ki yay
And it’s been years now since someone’s paged my mother
So I guess I’m here to stay’
Saxophones wail while Alan Palomo‘s hushed vocal tones are surprisingly, but thankfully, front-loaded in the mix showing us that, more than ever, this was an album where he wanted – needed – to be heard. Synths make those awesomely deep ‘bow’ sounds I love so much, coupled with more high-pitched stabs that accent vocal breaks in the track. It’s such a scene-setting moment for World of Hassle. Despite that being the first song on the album, it’s not the first one we heard from it. That was “Nudista Mundial ’89”, the title meaning ‘Nudist World’. It’s one of the most upbeat offerings of the album featuring Mac DeMarco and a video modeled after old Sierra point-and-click computer games like Leisure Suit Larry, complete with cameos from Joe Camel and Ernest Borgnine because of course. They both deal with Palomo and DeMarco embarking on a journey for a nudist beach party in Ibiza with chirping and warm, fuzzy synths as wingmen for the duo. It’s such a fun track and captures the ‘sueño electropical‘ feel referenced in the lyrics.
“The Return of Mickey Milan” has Palomo singing in his signature falsetto as he tells the story of washed-up ‘American original‘ pop performer Mickey Milan, a fictional hit-maker of a bygone time whose name is a reference to real DJ Micky Milan who popularized French disco in the 1970s and ’80s. It’s an awesome way for Palomo to pay real-life homage to a sound he’s indebted to and also color in the lines of World of Hassle, stocking it with characters that are both believable and fantastically larger than life in their own ways. We can all point to a Mickey Milan in our own minds, right? Some of the lyrics here are especially on point and the vocal delivery is catchy beyond belief:
‘Mickey these days, what can I say?
He used to kill ‘em in the top-down days
A wet dream weaver for the power pop believer
He’d keep ‘em moving all night long
Shoulders n’ pearls, the cover girls of 1993
Memories now in a faded magazine’
One thing that was abundant in VEGA INTL. Night School that is recontextualized a bit here is the sexiness of Palomo’s worlds. Here, there’s two songs that create a stunning back-to-back double feature feel similar to how “Slumlord” and “Slumlord’s Re-lease” did on the aforementioned album. “Alibi for Petra” is one of two of World of Hassle‘s instrumental tracks and totally sets the tone for a hazy, sultry encounter. It’s lush with gentle saxophone, tingling synths, and texture accoutrements that you can almost touch yourself. It dovetails into “Nobody’s Woman”, one of the best songs I’ve heard this year. With its groovy bassline and elevated, fluttery sax play, the mood transforms to something that should be legally defined as an aphrodisiac. Seriously, this song has massive long cigarette drags and bedrooms eyes vibes, like something Prince would write in his heyday. It’s such a powerful, visceral moment on an otherwise pretty light-hearted album, but every fantasy needs a little sex and therefore it fits so well (“The Island Years” also pulls weight in this department). Palomo’s voice hasn’t sounded any better than here as well, and that’s saying something because I adore his voice, just like I adore the hook here – ‘I’m nobody, and she’s nobody’s woman‘.
“Is There Nightlife After Death?” is the moody jazz number of the album, built on the wet, dark roads of a city closing up for the night and sending all its people into the streets. I love the guitar tone on this song, very classic rock, almost bluesy, and the rest of the song keeps the atmosphere so open with tight reverb, and synth and sax accents. It feels like the moment before all the lights on building faces dim to a repulsive darkness and your shadow dies under you as a result. It expertly leads into “Big Night of Heartache”, but what we get with this song isn’t a dejected, mournful ballad as much as a slow jam about being broken up with with a sense of humor about it. Palomo’s vocals are diverse as he blames his crying on the spice of the dinner he’s having with his soon-to-be ex, and asks her if it’s his height or facial hair that may have turned her off (‘Is it my height? My curlicues?/I’ll lose the mustache if it pleases you‘). It’s cute and relatable as hell, well-executed as a moment to elicit giggles rather than tears.
World of Hassle is just a marvel to behold, another concept built on one part debauchery, one part tasteful parody, and two more of Alan Palomo‘s own life, exaggerated to a degree to make it function more as escapism than autobiography, like how we used to insert ourselves into the stories we’d see or read as kids. It truly feels like a new chapter for the artist, making good of the name change he instituted as he glides into his mid-30s and delivers some of his most fun, acerbic, and realized work yet, all with an admirable attitude that almost betrays the seriousness of his craft. When “Trouble In Mind” wordlessly casts World of Hassle into the sunset, you long for another trip, another sip from its salted rim, another glance at its thin bikini straps, another feel of its heat emanating from the dangerously hot, buzzing neon lights bolted onto the brick face of a city building. Effectively, and with all due respect to the late legend Jimmy Buffett, Palomo’s made this generation’s album-length “Margaritaville”, teeming with lapsed dreams and dopamine hits alike.
I am absolutely in awe of how good this album is – it is without a single doubt one of the best I’ll hear this year. The eight-year wait for it was a burning, nagging itch for which the re-re-re-relistening to VEGA INTL. Night School barely salved. World of Hassle is worth every year, every month, every day of waiting while Alan Palomo exacted what we hear on this album to a pastel-colored meringue sweetness, sun-drenched and smelling of cigarette smoke, covered in glitter and a dizzying combination of perfumes from a wild night at a club while you use a local diner as a drunk tank to recover. Once again, he’s created an immersive world based in just enough reality to connect vivid references in your head, but caked in fantasy to fuel a kitschy kind of escapism we’ll seemingly never be afforded without the bank account of The Wolf of Wall Street. Bra-fucking-vo, and while I hope we don’t have to wait eight more years for another go, I’d wait until the end of time for another taste.