Release Date: September 18, 2012
The charm in Band of Horses’ early records was derived from an unapologetic naiveté. They were a bunch of twentysomethings healing the wounds from the demise of their first real band, Carissa’s Weird, by burrowing deeper into their record collections. Cribbing from Built To Spill, My Morning Jacket, and Hüsker Dü, Band of Horses hit a strangely resonant emotional mark, singer and songwriter Ben Bridwell using his goosebump-inducing tenor and dreamy guitar washes to endow typical slacker fodder (weed parties, hangovers, mid-20s melodrama) with crushing poignancy.
But six years on from the Seattle band’s celebrated debut, fourth album Mirage Rock seems like an awkward document of a mid-career crisis. After having graduated to a major label (Columbia) for 2010’s more muted Infinite Arms, they’ve now enlisted pedigreed British producer Glyn Johns (whose phone book-thick resume includes the Who, the Rolling Stones, Steve Miller Band, and Ryan Adams), but the result falls flat. It’s neither broadly melodic enough for a mainstream audience nor coolly quirky enough for indie kids.
To their credit, Band of Horses muster enough ambition to push beyond the borders of the earnest flannel-and-beard melancholy that made the first two albums so immediately comfortable. Plus, they flatly ignore the dissenters who found Infinite Arms too soft-rock around the edges. Despite a smattering of tunes that could be moldy B-sides (like the ratty chug-a-lug “Feud”), the best songs on Mirage Rock imitate forebears much older than Doug Martsch. Sparkling ’70s folk rock — think Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Poco, America — informs much of the set. Long the band’s greatest asset, Bridwell’s voice fits snugly between the silk sheets of Johns’ clean production on the ballads and quieter moments: “Long Vows” sways with a country groove and blossoms beautifully into a thickly harmonized chorus, while “Shut-In Tourist” boasts a brightly mixed acoustic guitar and a rhythmic patter beneath the arching melody. The rustic texture of “Everything’s Going to Be Undone,” probably the record’s best tune, has a lived-in naturalness that makes the band’s new comfort zone seem, not like a meandering attempt at maturity, but a front-porch jam session.
But Mirage Rock can’t quite manage the personality split between the beautiful, electrifying anthems of old Band Of Horses and the soft-rocking sway of the band’s recent past. “Dumpster World” might be the most painful example, as it flaunts both personalities at once, opening with the record’s most gorgeous vocal harmony, leading into a “Horse with No Name”-style bass groove guiding Bridwell’s sentimental meditation on disparity (“Light a candle for the suffering ones / Light a candle for the weak and small / Goddamnit there’s a lot of them”). But just as it really hits home emotionally, the tune explodes in a whopping rip of ragged-sounding electric guitars and a heavy rock thud reminiscent of Queens of the Stone Age. Are they genuinely raging against the injustice of society? Not so much. Bridwell and co. finally end up demanding that someone “bust out the drugs.” Um, what?
But maybe we should expect this kind of regression from a songwriter who is clearly wrestling with issues of both his band’s relevance and his own seeming mortality. The 34-year-old Bridwell is constantly talking about aging: “I’ve hit rock bottom / I’m getting old,” he sings on “Dumpster World.” “I’m getting old / Still gotta grow up,” he offers on “How to Live.” “I’m old enough to know / That I’m holding on to something,” he admits on “A Little Biblical.” There’s a song here called “Slow Cruel Hands of Time,” for fuck’s sake. Just wait until this dude turns 40.
This wouldn’t be such a problem if Bridwell actually had anything to say about getting on in years. But his lyrics are instead filled with self-pitying one-liners and opaque, imagistic wisps of utter poppycock, like “biding my time, getting stuck in my mind, there’s a boat to row.” What’s the insight he offers about those slow cruel hands of time? They “turn you into molten lava, oh my.”
It’s a drag that so many of Mirage Rock‘s most transcendent moments — the stuff suggesting real maturity — are so quickly undone by such nonsensical toss-offs. And then comes the occasional bout of overproduced bloat and accompanying Guitar Center wankism, outbursts that undermine the moments of sincerity andmake the glittering production seem suddenly gaudy (observe the unrelenting guitar solo on “Electric Music,” which should be followed by a reminder to tip your waitress). Perhaps it’s a lesson in how artistically disorienting it can be to play for an audience whose tastes are shifting from Stereogum to NPR, or an all-too revealing document about the struggle to achieve lasting artistic relevance in the Internet age, where a 34-year-old can actually feel truly ancient. The best moments here, with touching harmonies and well-drawn melodic arc, still offer hope that Band of Horses might still have a meaningful future, if they could return to the unassuming charm that buoyed them in the past.