If you read this blog often, you probably know that I have a complicated relationship with Welcome to Night Vale. While the first year of audio (ending in “One Year Later”) is borderline perfect, the show has dipped in quality more than once over the years, leading to recent episodes that have left me unimpressed and even frustrated. While the show has had its ups and downs, though, I will never forget the pure joy, awe, and excitement I felt when I saw the team tour with their show “The Investigators.” The show managed to be both rooted in the physical space of the performance, asking audience members to silently connect with each other, and shockingly natural in audio only after later listens. It didn’t just feel like listening to another episode I’d listen to on the podcast; it felt like a unique experience in the Night Vale universe.
Thus, when Welcome to Night Vale released their latest live show, “Ghost Stories,” I was excited to hear how it stacked up. Welcome to Night Vale‘s live show, “Ghost Stories,” was released on their bandcamp on May 1st, 2017. The show’s story focuses on Night Vale’s annual ghost story contest and incorporates themes like the cyclical nature of time, mortality, familial bonds in the face of tragedy, etc. The guests on the episode are Tamika Flynn, Teddy Williams, Steve Carlsberg, Pamela Winchell, Carlos, Mayor Dana, Earl Harlan, Jeffrey Cranor as the new station intern, Louie Blasko, Melony Pennington, Michelle Nguyen, and Sherrif Sam. The live album starts at $5, but listeners can pay more if they’d like to donate more to the show.
Before I jump into the review, I want to start by saying that if you want a quick, easy, affordable way to support Welcome to Night Vale that will also provide you with something in return, buying this live album is a fine option. However, if you want to purchase a live recording of a Welcome to Night Vale show for the quality of content you might not get from the podcast alone, this live album will leave you disappointed. While the writing and performances are fine, this show has major issues in its recording and editing, and the content is no better than a mediocre episode of the standard podcast episodes.
One of the benefits of a live recording for a podcast is hearing the audience’s engagement with the show, whether it’s laughing, applause, gasps, etc. None of that came through with this recording. Because of the mic placement in the venue, the only sounds picked up are the performers and maybe 5-10 audience members in the front rows. The effect is incredibly uncomfortable, going from near silence after some jokes to uproarious laughter from a small handful of people. The crowd feels empty or unimpressed, which ultimately feels embarrassing for such a big show. On top of the production and mixing for the audience, the bed music provided by Disparition is also mixed poorly: at times, it booms over the actors only to quickly shift to borderline inaudible. After five years of recording and six live shows, having such a poorly-mixed show is inexcusable.
The show is also broken down into tracks which is handy for listeners who want to return to specific moments in the show later, but an awkward choice for listeners who are used to a podcast format. This might be a problem with bandcamp and not the Night Vale team; however, I wouldn’t be surprised if these tracks were separated for the purpose of advertising their number of tracks. When listened to straight through, as I’m sure most listeners will, the breaks between tracks feel disjointed–often because they are. The end of the album contains the bonus tracks, moments with the guest characters from the show. The issue is that these moments don’t actually come at the end of the show; they’re scattered throughout, but put at the end so they’re only accessible to those who pay for the full show. Does bandcamp not allow the paid-only segments to be scattered into an album? Why not specifically list where these episodes are supposed to go instead of chunking them awkwardly at the end?
To compound the technical frustrations with the show, the writing is nothing impressive. The show does very little to be subversive of their standard audio-only format; the times when they’re clearly playing with the physical space, it sounds like it’s a small visual gag that adds nothing via audio. It isn’t that the physical gags shouldn’t happen–it’s that with the lack of subversion, the show does play out like a standard episode you could hear on the podcast. When the humor comes through, it does absolutely come through, and if you’re interested in listening for simple fun instead of being impressed, this show is a good source for laughs. This exchange between Cecil and Teddy Williams, performed with audible grins, had me cackling:
Teddy: We’re really getting into this Ghost Stories festival over at the Desert Flower today, and we wanted to celebrate the . . . spirit of the event, no pun intended.
Cecil: No pun understood.
There are some moving moments, but the emotional punch that comes towards the end feels wholly unearned by the content leading up to it. The philosophical discussion that has become a trademark of Night Vale feels shoehorned and clumsy. The moments that impressed me did so because, all in all, it’s still Night Vale. The moments that disappointed me were made worse because, all in all, this is Night Vale. For a show this established, this lauded, and this old, the listener shouldn’t have to settle for an episode that is simply fine, especially when listening to an episode as special as a live recording. The audience didn’t seem to be considered; even the idea of recording a live performance didn’t seem to be considered other than having to plan for a live show.
If you want to listen to a live show by Welcome to Night Vale that is deeply moving, earns its payoff, and is both subversive and natural in its medium, give “The Investigators” a try. If you want to support Welcome to Night Vale, maybe buy some merch you’ll enjoy. If you want to consume every piece of Night Vale audio, you understand that $5 is really hardly anything, and you don’t mind an extra-long episode of mediocre Night Vale content, then enjoy.