self-released / 2017
"You don't suck, you don't suck, you don't suck..."
Such is the backing refrain on "You Are Someone Special", the upbeat encouragement-anthem from Jay Tholen's new record. You could miss it on the first pass if you're not listening for it, but the line is everything great about Tholen and his music in microcosm - giggle-inducing, weirdly uplifting, and as earnest as a kid's picture drawn just to tell you they love you.
Sincerity pervades everything about Celestial Archive - you can practically feel Tholen straining to reach through your headphones with a big, squishy hug like Dropsy, the main character of his recent computer game. Tholen's parallel career as a game designer has become his main jam over the last few years, but Celestial Archive is the first time he's bent his programming skills to serve his music, rather than the other way around. Enter the "Celestial Archive Multimedia Experience". A charming webpage partner to the album clad in late-'90s internet flair, it gives background on each song and even lets listeners play along with the tunes using a built-in synthesizer. Reading tidbits about Tholen's adoration of breakfast (“the greatest non-divine meal”), or his "slime socks", it's impossible to experience Celestial Archive as anything but a labor of pure love.
Of course, even without the Multimedia Experience, Celestial Archive is a resoundingly successful endeavor. Compulsively singable melodies appear, disappear, and reappear transmogrified at later points amid piles of sound that smack of everything from retro electronica to vaporwave to chillwave to Eno-style ambient. The way-too-short, Neon Indian-esque cyclone of noise "Do I Deserve This?" manages to be deeply thought-provoking with just a few vocal samples, while the joyous prog-rock boogaloo that ends "You Are Someone Special" is the perfect culmination of the track's radiant positivity.
Tholen spends much of Celestial Archive marveling at God's intricate design and care for his creation, down to the finest details. Tholen got married last year and moved to Germany after a long international courtship, and that sense of wonder at God’s master plan encompasses his relationship with his wife. While lots of googly-eyed lovers attribute the way they met to some vague cosmic destiny, on "Celestial Archive of Divinely Authored Plans", he traces God's sovereign orchestration all the way back to the foundation of the planet: "When the plan was made, the boundaries were laid, and the landforms were raised/I think he knew this would be the place/Where you'd meet me and I would meet you".
The level of micromanagment that he describes - stacks of heavenly file cabinets stuffed with papers outlining everything you’ve ever done or will do - can get slagged as an existential straightjacket, but for Tholen, it’s the source of deep comfort and security. That’s because it’s grounded by an even deeper belief in God’s radical goodness. Those axioms shape everything about the wonderful Celestial Archive, whose simple thesis is summed up in the middle of the track “He Wrote It All Down”: "It's good to know that all you've been through was carefully arranged/By a God who really loves you".