A good bit of rock and a lotta roll have always characterized Band of Horses’ sound. From the soft-spoken love songs to the speaker-blowing bangers, Ben Bridwell’s uniquely pitchy voice and unfazed blunt lyricism carry the band’s songs through lively twists and turns.
Their latest record, the curiously titled “Things Are Great,” is no exception. As the success of the lead-off single “Crutch” has shown, Bridwell’s writing still hits the spot. It’s easy to find something satisfying in the flow of the music and to resonate with the contents of the lyrics.
Lyrics are where the album draws the most attention to itself. Bridwell has often narrated elaborate but clear images (listen to “The Funeral” from 2006’s “Everything All the Time,” for example).
But on “Things Are Great,” the imagery shifts in the direction of plainness, simplicity and, on occasion, bluntness. Something in these lyrics has aged; though no doubt poetic, there are few extraneous complexities here.
Take, for example, “Tragedy of the Commons,” one of the album’s slower tracks. From an almost peppy, jumpy guitar riff, the song pivots to something completely smooth. Over just about the slickest backdrop, Bridwell sing his chorus: “Babe I’m dog tired / Can I cancel it all.”
After teasing a radical slowdown, the BPMs finally drop, and the chorus returns, this time languid and yawning, embodying the exhaustion in the words. If Band of Horses are trying to hit home with the younger crowds, here’s a way to do it.
Sonically, “Things Are Great” appears well within the realm of Band of Horses’ discography. On average, it’s a little less twinkle and light touch and a bit more driven rock. They draw out the momentum of flowy chord progressions and tight percussion perhaps even more than usual.
At first, the little twinkle that Band of Horses usually have in their music seemed to be missing. The soft touch, the really overdrawn heartfelt writing. But after a couple of listens, I found it in these slower tracks and in the lyrics’ frankness.
The album has quite a few highlight tracks. There is “Crutch,” the album’s catchiest song. It has everything we’ve come to expect from Band of Horses: Bridwell’s soaring voice, crisp guitars and dramatic dynamics. Then there’s the layered and heavy hitting “In Need of Repair.”
Power-opener “Warning Signs,” too, is one of the album’s strongest showings. Each image, (“Small talk with a registered nurse / Not to cry in front of people at work / Well that’s hard, hard, hard, at times you know”) sits so weightlessly.
And then the descending triple repetition (“hard, hard, hard”) seems to ground the track. The walls feel like they’re closing in, but then the song finds a patch of crisp, gray sky. It’s not complete relief, but it’s something.
That’s a sensation the album gives a lot: a lack of resolution. Bridwell doesn’t let us believe with any certainty in either a doomsday vision or a better future. The record focuses on depicting the present and seems to leave what’s to come largely in question.
With all of that on the table, let’s return to the album’s title: “Things Are Great.” If you’ve ever caught up with someone over the phone, then you’ve probably said it; much like “I’m OK,” it’s the brushoff and go-to reply to the seemingly innocuous question “How are things?”
With all that the album says, the title seems ironic, masking the truth or at best wistful thinking. And, frankly, I haven’t got a problem with that. Much as the album is, I’m skeptical of a blanket statement like “things are great.”
In the end, “Things Are Great” is quite the catalog of simple realizations, another wonderful piece of work from a band who is clearly capable, after 15 years, of releasing poignant and relevant records.
Does it measure up to the giants? To “Infinite Arms” and “Everything All the Time?” Maybe not. Perhaps the lesser diversity of tone, the more grounded imagery of “Things Are Great” makes them difficult to compare.
But “Things Are Great” is a great album and one certainly worth hearing if you’re into Band of Horses, folk rock, or you’re just an adult caught in the throngs of contemporary living. It’s good to see Band of Horses back at it again.
We can only hope that they stop by sometime to bless us with a show here in town. Stream “Things Are Great” on all platforms starting March 4 (the original release date was Friday).
Julien A. Luebbers can be reached at email@example.com.
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