Sunday, April 23, 2017

Review of Said the Whale's "As Long as Your Eyes Are Wide"

I posted this review on the Sputnik Music website earlier tonight:

Review Summary: If you liked the 2013 version of Said the Whale ... well, I have no idea if you'll like this album.

I've been writing a lot of album reviews for this site over the last 6 months or so, and I have to admit, sometimes I think about what I'm going to write way in advance. This usually isn't a problem, because most of the reviews I've written are of albums I've been familiar with for years -- I've had a long time to figure out what I think of them. Lately, though, I've been reviewing more new stuff, and that's when thinking ahead can get you in trouble. In this case, I knew probably two months ago that a new Said the Whale album was coming out, and I guessed that it was a pretty safe LP to review -- the likelihood was no one else on Sputnik was going to review it if I didn't. So I started getting ideas about what I might write even before the album was released. In this case, most of my ideas were centered around the word "pop". Because that's what I was expecting. Popping poppy popped up mother-popping pop. Sentences came into my head full-blown, such as "Imagine if Kellogg's fired Snap and Crackle from the Rice Krispies box, and hired two of Pop's brother's, so it would be 'Pop, Pop and Pop.' This album is kind of like that." That's what I was expecting to write. Because that's what would have fit their last album. Then I saw some promotional material from the band about how the new album was so much more than empty, banal pop songs, and I knew it was back to the proverbial drawing board.

The truth is, in spite of the anti-pop promos, on my first listen to As Long as Your Eyes Are Wide, I was stunned. I'm only familiar with this band from their 2013 EP I Love You and their full-length follow-up LP later that year, Hawaii, and this album doesn't even sound like it was made by the same band. It's not necessarily a good thing or a bad thing. I liked I Love You and Hawaii, and I also like ALAYEAW, but in entirely different ways. I Love You and Hawaii are for me the essence of what I'd call alternapop. They're fun, they're energetic and they have some great pop hooks. The songs are full of youthful exuberance (even though I know this band has been around for awhile), and while they're not the deepest things I ever heard, they're not totally empty calories either. The subject matter of the songs ranges from male-female friendships ("Barbara-Ann") to reacting to your Dad telling you that you a have a brother and sister you never knew about ("I Love You") to trying out your adult wings for the first time, and trying to keep it from your mother that you're kind of screwing up ("Don't Tell My Mother").

As I said earlier, though, As Long as Your Eyes Are Wide sounds as though it was recorded by an entirely different band. I researched whether there were major changes in personnel, but while they did lose their drummer early this year, that really doesn't account for the change. (They also lost their bass player in 2016, but I think he recorded at least part of the album with them before he left. I can't tell for sure, though, because whoever the genius was that designed the album art thought it would be a great idea to set all of the credits on the CD's inner fold in white type on a mostly light gray background, so the only words you can actually read are the ones that run across lead singer Ben Worcester's black shirt. Way to go, Einstein!).

In any event, after multiple listens, I think I may have figured it out. The clues are the actual changes to the style of music itself, plus a song called "Miscarriage". The difference between the music on ALAYEAW and their earlier material is that the songs here are slower, a little more somber, and built around more mature themes than is their output from 2013. And "Miscarriage", which is the slowest track on the new album, tells a story of grief. The song's protagonist is singing directly to his lover, and remembering the previous Thanksgiving with her. The story seems to be that she was pregnant with his child but lost the baby. The song talks about how they put on a "brave face" and didn't tell his family right away so as not to spoil the holiday, and how happy his mother seemed at the thought he was going to be a father. So my theory is that the change between 2013 and 2017 is simply this -- as it will do sometimes, life has just slapped the perkiness right out of these guys.

Don't get me wrong -- this isn't a depressing album. While the songs are mostly slow or mid-tempo, and laced with some beautiful synth work and nicely harmonized vocals, it's not all gloom and doom here. Even "Miscarriage" isn't completely sad. Yes, there's grief, but it seems to be healthy grief, not bitter or despairing. In the song, the singer is trying to comfort his lover, reassuring her he still loves her no matter what, and that they'll get through this. So the difference between this album and Hawaii is the replacement of that manic, effervescent energy that ran through that album with a newfound refinement and maturity. In the end, we are still dealing with a form of pop on As Long as Your Eyes Are Wide, but it's pop of a more sophisticated kind. Or to put it another way, stylistically, it's less young Blink-182 and more Vinyl Theatre or Miike Snow. There are fewer driving guitars here, and more keyboards, electronic effects and even synthetic string sounds.

The first single from ALAYEAW is particularly fetching, and seems to reinforce my theory. Fittingly, it's called "Step Into the Darkness". On this track, the singer hears his lady love singing a song about "Live long for the sweet light." He starts to sing with her, but it feels wrong, "Singing that song when the darkness feels so right." 

Other lines of interest throughout the album include "Nostalgia .../Heaven must be made of it" in a song called "Heaven", and "Even though we are born innocent/It doesn't take too much to *** it up" in "I Will Follow You". "Emily Rose" is another song about loss. On this track, the singer laments "Sometimes good things don't last long enough". Nevertheless, he lives in hope: "I'm gonna leave a light on/For Emily Rose/I'm gonna leave a light on/In case you come home." As for "Miscarriage", whether the story it tells is literally true or not (and I suspect that it is ... the emotions feel pretty genuine), it fits right in with the theme of the loss of innocence and the embrace of darker emotions that permeate the rest of the album. 

I don't know what the future holds for Said the Whale. Maybe they'll continue to explore these pitchy soundscapes, maybe not. All I can tell you is, if you liked the 2013 version of Said the Whale ... well, I have no idea if you'll like As Long as Your Eyes Are Wide. I like them both, but you should go in knowing that Said the Whale 2013 and Said the Whale 2017 are two very different mammals.

Rating: 3/5 stars