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Review: School of Seven Bells’ Legacy Is Greater Than Its Finale ‘SVIIB’

6
SPIN Rating: 6 of 10
Release Date: February 26, 2016
Label: Vagrant
picture-23085-1414615703Rachel Brodsky // February 17, 2016

The story of dream-pop heroes School of Seven Bells is undoubtedly compelling. Lead vocalist Alejandra Deheza met longtime partner and friend Ben Curtis in 2007 when they were working on other projects — Deheza in On!Air!Library! and Curtis in the Secret Machines. After touring in their separate outfits with Interpol, they teamed up with Deheza’s twin sister, Claudia, to form School of Seven Bells and release 2007’s sweeping Alpinisms and its follow-up, 2010’s Disconnect From Desire. Claudia left the band in 2010 for undisclosed reasons, but Alejandra and Curtis continued their relationship — romantic and then not — well into the next decade, with 2012’s Ghostory and the Put Your Sad Down EP. Then Curtis grew ill; he died of T-cell Lymphoblastic Lymphoma in 2013 at just 35.

To honor his legacy, Curtis’ input has been purposefully and thoughtfully woven through SVIIB, School of Seven Bells’ fourth and final record, one that the guitarist contributed to and co-produced with Justin Meldal-Johnsen as much as his health allowed in his final months. “[SVIIB] was my biggest way to tell him how much I loved him as a person,” Deheza told Stereogum of this partial posthumous release. Her eulogistic intentions on SVIIB are stirring, but perhaps a more fitting epitaph for Curtis would be for listeners to dig into the band’s fibrous early material — the palpitating “Iamunderdisguise,” the auditory tilt-a-whirl of “Windstorm,” and the shuddering “Dust Devil,” just for starters.

That’s not to say that SVIIB is completely devoid of the head-rushing textures found on their previous material. The first two tracks, “Ablaze” and “On My Heart,” introduce the record with spectral synths and pounding percussion. “There was a me before you / There was a you before me / And that’s the way it goes,” Deheza accepts in the latter track, meditating on her present liminal state without Curtis, yet still existing in the band they started together.

Onward, SVIIB loses steam — and possibly your attention — with the feet-dragging “Elias,” the well-worn “Music Takes Me,” and the sleepy if well-intended “Confusion.” Each comes with a mix of elemental imagery (“These days I’m feeling the sun come through / Stealing the starry sky / Revealing the magic show to me tonight”) and possible farewells to Curtis (“I just want to say / Thank you, thank you for all you gave”). Such spiritual sentiments must be meant to invoke an otherworldly atmosphere, but SVIIB’s sudden drop in energy feels less like a gentle parachute glide and more like a bungee-jump plummet.

There will be the temptation to designate SVIIB this band’s definitive work because of the tragic weight bearing on it. But emotions riding high on posthumous releases don’t always guarantee focus, much less a classic. Sometimes an artist’s final output is comparable to Elliott Smith’s From a Basement on the Hill — a solid-but-spotty entry less essential than the more vital XO and Either/Or. Still, we’re glad to have Nirvana’s “You Know You’re Right” and Michael Jackson’s “Love Never Felt So Good” from their respective aftermaths. The more down-the-middle SVIIB shows that these postscripts aren’t always special, but we’re grateful for the closing chapter nonetheless.