Change Is Good
Except When It Isn't
Let me start off by saying unequivocally that I love it when artists radically change.
In fact, I demand it. My favorite artists are restless, like sharks, constantly moving forward, looking for new territory. While I appreciate the value of consistency – and there are some very good bands who have plied the same trade for 20 or 30 years, and you know what to expect from them – I’m a sucker for risks. If you’ve decided to do something that sounds kind of insane, and could completely derail your career if it fails, I’m in. I love that kind of reckless artistic drive.
So when I say that the new Mutemath album, Vitals, is a wretched example of a band giving up on everything that made them special, believe me that it’s not the idea of radical change itself that I’m railing against. I actually respect Mutemath for knowing that what they were doing wasn’t working, and that they needed a reinvention. But Vitals is the absolute worst reinvention they could have made. It will probably do very well for them, but as a piece of art, it’s empty and hollow.
Let’s start from the beginning.
I first saw Mutemath perform their traveling musical carnival act at the Cornerstone Festival in 2005. They were amazing – doing somersaults on stage, swapping instruments, playing with a fire that I’ve only rarely seen. And on top of that, they wrote terrific songs, merging the punk attitude of early Police albums with a soaring and hopeful pop sensibility. Their self-titled debut album was one of the most perfect first efforts I’ve ever heard. It was instantly memorable while being remarkably progressive and complex, and held together as a single unbroken unit. It was astonishingly confident, given that it sounded like nothing else on the market.
Every subsequent album has been a baffling step further away from the brilliance of the first one. 2009’s Armistice was essentially the debut again, but worse. 2011’s Odd Soul, the first without founding guitarist Greg Hill, incorporated a Black Keys-style classic rock influence while failing to include many songs that rose above the din. (“Prytania” remains great.) My biggest problem with Odd Soul is that I couldn’t hear the band I fell in love with. Subsequent listens showed that they were still in there somewhere, crying out with weak voices, but it took a while to find them.
And now here is Vitals, the biggest break yet from the band they used to be. That’s not in itself a bad thing, but they've settled on a synth-driven simplistic pop style that sounds alternately like Maroon 5 and a remix record from the ‘80s. The whole thing sounds like it’s crying out for placement in commercials about luxury cars and skinny jeans. I knew things were headed off the rails when I heard “Monument,” the painfully cheesy first single, of which the band seemed inordinately proud. Seriously, replace Paul Meany with Adam Levine and no one would really notice.
“Monument” is on the low end of the album, thankfully, but even the songs I like (“All I See,” “Stratosphere,” “Remain”) are saddled with simple arrangements and plastic production. The band’s finest asset has always been drummer Darren King, and it’s hard to hear his influence here at all. He’s replaced by machines half the time, and never allowed to truly cut loose. This one, much more than the previous effort, sounds like the band lost a guitar player, which is odd since this is their first with newbie Todd Gummerman. There are guitars here, just as there are organic drums, but they’re largely buried under all the synths.
And again, the fact that this music is synth-driven isn’t really the problem. The problem is that the songs are lacking and the production does them no favors. Opener “Joy Rides” is a goofy dance-a-thon that throws you right into the deep end of this new sound. In some ways it’s similar to Keane’s “Spiraling,” which opened their own stab at changing things up, Perfect Symmetry. Except that “Spiraling” is a really good song, and “Joy Rides” is the soundtrack to a Lexus ad. Even goofier is “Best of Intentions,” which tries on an ill-fitting Hall and Oates impression.
Mutemath fares better when they try to sound like Mutemath. “Used To” is no great shakes, but it has that Darren King slow-thump backbeat going for it, and a nice sense of resignation. There are two instrumentals, both pretty good but pointless – on the debut, the instrumentals extended or linked other tracks, and these are just... there. Still, it’s a welcome throwback. And the band is at its best here when embracing the dreamy side of what they do. “All I See” is quite beautiful, a successor to “You Are Mine” from the debut, and the layers of keyboards fit in well here.
The album’s best song is its last, “Remain.” It is here that the band remembers how to write a lovely closer like “Stall Out,” building their rainclouds of synthesizers into a massive wave over six minutes. “Just keep trying, just keep fighting, just keep going, just keep surviving,” Meany sings atop this wave, and for the first time in 47 minutes, I feel something. Most of this record keeps me at a distance, particularly when it sounds like Meany’s home demos (“Composed”). On this one track, Mutemath taps into something special, pulls from something real, and as the final strains fade out, I find myself wondering why they couldn’t do that eleven more times.
Vitals is one of the biggest disappointments of my year. It’s the furthest this band has fallen, the worst music they have made. It’s still Mutemath, so there are certainly good songs and certainly strong moments. But in their zeal to redefine their sound, they’ve lost most of what I loved about them. Perhaps this will be like Odd Soul, and with further listens I will hear the band I once knew submerged in there somewhere. Perhaps it will grow on me. I certainly hope so, because I hate feeling this way about artists I adore. I’ll keep listening.
* * * * *
If you want an example of a band successfully reinventing themselves between albums, check out Birds Say, the sophomore LP from Darlingside.
I had two people I’ve never met (Alex Caldwell and Shawn McLaughlin) recommend Darlingside to me, and it took only a cursory listen to convince me that I had to own everything this band has done. This Massachusetts band has a great way with a melody and four singers who harmonize like angels. Their 2012 debut, Pilot Machines, established them as a propulsive folk-rock group with some truly wonderful songs (“The Woods” and “Blow the House Down” are favorites). Three years later, their second album has arrived with a completely different conception of the band, and a totally transformed sound.
The main difference is the departure of drummer Sam Kapala, who took with him all notion of Darlingside as a rock band. Birds Say is a primarily acoustic affair, with the focus on the quartet’s gorgeous, intertwined voices. They announce this change in style by reprising a song from Pilot Machines right up front – “The Ancestor” is a deliriously lovely anthem of hard-won hope in either version, but as the opener of this new record, it glides in delicately and sweeps the clouds away. It also perfectly sets the tone – Birds Say is a gentle delight, sunny and warm.
An early highlight is “Harrison Ford,” a kinetic tale of an odd meeting with some wonderful cello flourishes. “Clay and Cast Iron” is a bittersweet fable set at a skating rink. “Go Back” makes fantastic use of those harmonies to tell a story of retreating into the past. “The God of Loss” is stunning, its lyrics based on a book band member Auyon Mukharji was not allowed to read as a child. “She’s All Around” brings in a delicate electric guitar, adding texture behind the acoustic and the mandolin, and making space for those dreamlike voices. Closer “Good For You” is one of the band’s best songs, a searching and probing piece of work that ends the album on a questioning, yet hopeful note.
Really, I’m just listing and describing songs now, which does you no good. Birds Say is a wonderful listen, a tremendous example of committing to a new identity and making it work. I’m grateful to both Alex and Shawn for turning me on to this band. You can hear them and buy their stuff here. You won’t regret it.
Next week, catching up with a bunch of new releases. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.
See you in line Tuesday morning.