Psychedelia and Spirituality on Aaron Lee Tasjan’s “Karma for Cheap”

Throughout “Karma For Cheap,” Aaron Lee Tasjan bridges the gap between light and darkness in discovery of the blissful space where both elements coexist.

Image: Karma For Cheap | Aaron Lee Tasjan (bandcamp.com)

Karma For Cheap might be Aaron Lee Tasjan’s most enlightened album yet. Though thematically similar to his 2016 album release, Silver Tears, touching on infamously rock and roll topics like death and selling out, Karma For Cheap offers more confidence, wisdom, and blaring psychedelic fuzz than its predecessor.

While Silver Tears reaches for the sky, many of the songs on Karma For Cheap seem to come from the heavens, transporting Tasjan from his jangly Nashville sound to one that is both timeless and placeless. Tasjan sings of our intuitive spiritual knowledge, existential aloneness, and the need to live authentic lives in a way that channels the ethos of spiritual seekers like George Harrison and Ray Davies. However, as much as Karma For Cheap transcends, it is effortlessly grounded in the real world.

Karma For Cheap masterfully dances the line between material and ethereal, density and airiness, darkness and light. Tasjan peers into spaces of duality and weaves opposite worlds into the same cloth, creating a place where the material and spiritual meet. He structures the album around this concept, guiding the listener through the progression from songs like “If Not Now When,” which is concerned with breaking from the monotony and futility of working life, to the intimate solace of lighter acoustic tracks, like “Dream Dreamer,” that seem to come from on high.

These tracks serve as propellants toward the climactic union of material and spiritual in the later track “Set You Free,” in which Tasjan proclaims, “Open up your eyes; you can change the scene, and let it set you free.” In this, Tasjan does not just take the listener from one world to the next but rather highlights the interplay and harmony of both. He accomplishes this sonically as well as thematically, carefully balancing loud, warbling, and sometimes dense guitar riffs with moments of acoustic tranquility.

In direct contrast with the jaunty piano and charismatic guitar that enliven most of the tracks on Karma For Cheap, Tasjan does not shy away from heavy topics such as existential aloneness and death. It is, in fact, with striking bluntness that Tasjan proclaims, “We all live in this world alone” on “Heart Slows Down” or that he confidently declares, “The long and lonely road ahead is gonna make you wish that you were dead” on “The Rest Is Yet To Come” (a title that is, in itself, suggestive of death).

However, he approaches such topics with unusually cool detachment, replacing existential dread with freeing acceptance. Tasjan chooses to sing about emptiness and loneliness in “Strange Shadows” to the tune of light-weight guitar riffs reminiscent of 60s girl groups, whose themes of choice were typically those of love and happiness. And rather than wallowing in these realities, he sings of darkness, “I know it’s never going away,” choosing to look into it without judgement or emotion, evoking the Eastern spirituality of psychedelic rockers of the past.

Writing about my favorite hidden gems in music.

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