Makeup For The Silence

The digital home of music writer Jesse Richman

Makeup For The Silence

Tag: 2013 (Page 1 of 2)

#1 Album of 2014 – Kanye West – Yeezus

#1 – KANYE WEST – YEEZUS [spotify]

(feat. track – “I’m In It” [spotify])

What are two things that Foxy Shazam’s Foxy Shazam, The Bigger Lights’ Battle Hymn and Motion City Soundtrack’s Go have in common?

  1. They were my album of the year (2010-12, respectively)
  2. There wasn’t a whole lot written about any.

That #2 there greatly effected how I decided to write about those albums – that combination of experiential and evangelical writing that was sort of the basis for this blog to begin with.

But there’s no sense in me evangelizing on Yeezus. It’s the most-discussed album of the year. Discussed to death. Everyone has weighed in, not the least Kanye himself, numerous times. If you haven’t read either the New York Times interview or the one he just did with Steve McQueen in Interview Mag, or watched the Zane Lowe interviews, I can’t recommend them highly enough. He’s enthralling. Scattered, sure, but so are lots of the smartest people I know. And doesn’t give a fuck about code switching half the time – not sure if that’s because he doesn’t care or because it’s a thought-through stance. I really don’t care which it is, either way, those would be terrible, pedantic reasons to dismiss what he has to say. I love his brashness, his embrace of ego, his intransigent honesty, his intelligence, his desire to live ArtPOP (rather than just call things ArtPOP) – and if you don’t, I’m not convincing you. I’m not about to thinkpiece the most-thinkpieced-about record of 2013.

So what I will say is this. I listened to Yeezus more than any other album in 2013. In the car, on the train, at work, hanging out with my fiancee* in our apartment, in concert. All year long. And I’m not even a little bit tired of it – if anything, the more contexts I hear it in, the more it reveals itself to me. It’s pleasing intellectually and it’s equally pleasing viscerally. I loved the glitchy, blipped-out sonics of the first half on first listen. I came around to the slower, uglier, less musical tracks** later, after many listens, and now I love those even more. It, like 808’s and Heartbreak and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (my #7 album of 2010) before it, will prove to be massively influential*** five years down the line. I saw the Yeezus tour in concert four times; the staging and pageantry were both astonishing, Kanye was vibrant and engaged and present in a way that I’ve found few performers to be, especially those on large arena tours, and each night was a progressively better performance, culminating with Lindsay and I on the floor for the final show at Madison Square Garden, maybe 10 feet from the man himself as he did work – as he jumped, stalked, was raised as a god and prostrated himself to another one, as he ranted spoke Swaghili soliloquized – an experience I will truly never forget among the thousands of shows I’ve seen and will see to come.

In short, Yeezus absolutely dominated my year; it wouldn’t make sense to have it anywhere but at #1. I’d place it higher if I could.

* She’s the biggest Kanye stan I’ve ever met. It’s one of her finer qualities. Is there anything more inspiring and wonderful than people who are really passionate about something?

** That’s the big secret about Yeezus – while it is an oblique, harsh, not-readily-approachable record, the Daft Punk tracks are actually the most approachable ones. The synthesized tracks aren’t nearly as gnarly as they’ve been made out to be; spiky, to be sure, but tuneful. It’s the knotted treetrunks of tracks like “I’m In It” and “Hold My Liquor” and “Guilt Trip” that really require some serious listening time to find footholds in.

*** That said, while I think a lot of folks agree that Yeezus will reverberate in a way that changes modern music, I don’t think it’s going to be for the harsh, Daft Punk electronic elements. I think the combination of the chopped-up, jump-cut, seams-showing aesthetic and the use of manipulated dancehall samples are both going to prove to be the real lasting legacy.

#2 Album of 2013 – Fall Out Boy – Save Rock and Roll

#2 – FALL OUT BOY – SAVE ROCK AND ROLL [spotify]

(feat. track – “The Phoenix” [spotify])

If 2013 had a theme for me, it was The Year Of Fall Out Boy. From January’s fevered discussions about how to break their return from hiatus, to February’s even-bigger-than-we-knew reveal, to April’s album launch, to the band’s endless parade of late nite TV appearances, to the six singles which charted on the Alternative, Pop or Rock charts – including the band’s best-selling single to date, the triple-platinum “My Songs Know What You Did In The Dark (Light ‘Em Up)” – Fall Out Boy felt completely inescapable to me this year. And it was wonderful.

I spent more words on them than on anyone else, by a longshot. I loved the brashness of the aforementioned comeback single, calling it

a conflagration that rages and then fizzles as quickly as it began. It begs to be listened to on repeat. It’s the sort of triumphal blast that lifts you with it; midway through each play I slip into hazy fantasies of joining 2 Chainz in the track’s video, stomping and spraying fire like kids playing Godzilla.

I thought it was brilliant, the way they found a path to success in a world that no longer had time for rock and roll by being simultaneously a part of and apart from the radio mainstream, “rock as a katamari ball, a small core rolling up the constellations of pop in layers around it,” fearlessly incorporating discofied funk (“Where Did The Party Go”), vintage synth-pop (“Just One Yesterday”), acoustic swagger (“Young Volcanoes”) and jock-jam bombast (“My Songs…”), acting as if all those things belonged together on one album and then somehow making it so they didYou can even sing the chorus of “Just One Yesterday” in a country twang. Try it, it’s fun!

I loved the album’s title, noting that:

if there’s one hallmark that sets Fall Out Boy’s songs apart, it’s that somewhere in that alchemical cauldron where Patrick Stump assembles Pete Wentz’s words into songs, a sort of transubstantiation occurs. Fall Out Boy lyrics, at their best, don’t just contain the possibility for multiple understandings; rather, they are all of those possible meanings, wholly, and all at once. And on Save Rock And Roll, they’ve finally found an album title that’s capable of the same Olympian gymnastics.

I saw the band live six times, in every context imaginable: a tiny club in Austin mere weeks after the band’s surprise return from their indefinite hiatus; capping off a Perez Hilton-organized pop party; anchoring the first day of the biggest punk fest the world has ever seen, in their hometown Chicago; at a sold-out Barclay’s Center, on a victory lap of an arena tour, packing venues they wouldn’t have been fit to headline at peak of their popularity on their first go-round. Each time out, as their playing grew tighter and their staging more grandiose, I was increasingly impressed. It’s something to see a band six times in a year and to not only never feel let down, but to come away from each show a little more amazed than I was the time before.

I listened to it as much as anything in 2013: Save Rock And Roll was my #2 most played album of 2013 according to last.fm, and those numbers are a serious undercount – I listened to it as much, if not more, on other peoples’ devices as I did on my own, not to mention all those live shows, TV performances, radio ubiquity and more. Even listening to it now, tracks like “Rat-a-tat” and “Miss Missing You” sound as fresh and sharp today as they did nearly a year ago. I still get goosebumps when Patrick Stump hits that a capella vocal run the second before the final chorus of “The Phoenix” comes roaring back in.

I even turned my previously-unfamiliar girlfriend into a superfan. (And along the way, turned her into my fiancee too. And I’ve got to imagine that all those hours we spent listening to Save Rock And Roll together, all those nights seeing Fall Out Boy live together, played at least some little part in bringing us closer together than ever.)

So like I said at the outset, 2013 was Fall Out Boy’s year. Save Rock And Roll proved both better and more successful than anyone, including this guy who thought they had the best album of the year back in 2007, had any right to expect. I’m over the moon about it all. To paraphrase a character from the same source material as band’s name: Best. Comeback. Ever.

[album review] [single review] [live review – SXSW I] [live review – SXSW II] [live review – Riot Fest] [playlist – The Phoenix]

#3 Album of 2013 – Against Me! – True Trans

#3 – AGAINST ME! – TRUE TRANS [spotify]

(feat. track – “FuckMyLife666″ [spotify])

So, that aforementioned shortest release on this year’s Top Ten Twelve? True Trans is a digital single / 7”, only two songs long, but they’re two of the absolute best songs of the year, and almost certainly the ones I listened to most in 2013, especially b-side “True Trans Soul Rebel”. I wouldn’t have felt right not including it here.

In a total coincidence, today happens to be the day that Against Me!’s Transgender Dysphoria Blues, which includes finished versions of both of these songs, is out. In a fit of masochistic self-importance, I’ve refused to listen to the new album until I finish this piece; I didn’t want hearing these songs with the full studio treatment to color my thoughts on the versions I’ve listened to all year long*, which frankly are tremendous just the way they are. Vulnerability is a new pose for Against Me!, and they manage it here without sacrificing any of their power. Laura Jane Grace’s voice retains its strident bite even sans bark; the high-pitched ambient feedback that undergirds the acoustic guitar on both tracks lends them a depth and resonance that doesn’t make itself obvious until repeated listens.

The upside of that coincidence with the release date is that a thousand thinkpieces and, more importantly, interviews have covered the subject of Grace’s decision to come out as trans. It’s not something I really want to delve too deeply into here. It’s apparent that the vast majority of attention Against Me! are getting right now is due to Grace’s apparent otherness, to our curiosity at the things we don’t quite understand (and, I imagine, can’t really understand at a deep level rather than just, say, an intellectual one, without having been there ourselves.) Let’s not pretend otherwise. Hell, I’ve gone from a big Against Me! fan back in the Searching For A Former Clarity days to one who hardly gave more than a cursory listen or three to White Crosses; I’m not sure I’d be paying much attention this time out if it wasn’t for extra-musical interest.

But what makes True Trans so great is the way Grace universalizes that experience without ever losing hold of its personal meaning – indeed, it’s the deeply personal nature of the songs that grants them their universal power. I’ll never know what it feels like to ask myself “who’s gonna take you home tonight, who’s gonna take you home? // does God bless your transsexual heart?” But the confusion, the fear, the bitterness and the bravery in Grace’s vocal reflects images of places I know, places we’ve all known – we may each carry weights of different shapes and sizes, but we all know the struggle of shouldering a heavy load. And being specific her personal struggles casts them as so much more real than more generically “relatable” lyrics ever could, and definitely more so than the more metaphoric lyrics of the last few Against Me! albums (not to mention the political songs). It’s been a long time since I’ve found Against Me! this compelling.

So with that said, I’m going to hit “Post” and go listen to Transgender Dysphoria Blues. And, if True Trans is any indicator, I’ll find myself scribbling preliminary notes for 2014’s Top Ten.

*I have heard both songs, as well as most of the rest of the album, live a couple times, both acoustic and full-band; they’re only more powerful in person.

#4 Album of 2013 – Shone – Heat Thing

#4 – SHONE – HEAT THING [spotify]

(feat. track – “Bestial” [spotify])

I wrote a piece earlier this year focusing on album release strategies, which was in part spurred on by the viral campaign behind Heat Thing, the debut album from Brian Lane (Brand New) and Andrew Accardi’s (Robbers) Shone:

“Be Patient. Heatthing.com.” That simple, cryptic tweet, issued from a succession of artist Twitter accounts (including Thrice, Manchester Orchestra, Balance & Composure and Vinnie Caruana) on December 21st, launched the scene into the most frenzied viral marketing campaign in recent memory. Through a series of eerie videos, backmasked sound clips, and even mailed letters, the secret missive was gradually decoded over the next few weeks — Heat Thing was the title for the debut album by a band called Shone, which appeared to include Brand New’s Brian Lane as well as Andrew Accardi, vocalist for Robbers and brother of Brand New guitar-slinger Vin. There’s no question that Shone’s campaign brought a flood of attention that the band would never have garnered otherwise. But as the music finally emerged, it quickly became apparent that Shone sounded nothing like Brand New or their friends-in-virality, and when Heat Thing (the album) didn’t match the high expectations that stemmed from Heat Thing (the marketing campaign), that tide began to turn against the band. At this point, it’s not clear whether the elaborate effort was even a net positive for Shone.

Delivering Just What You Need: Album Release Strategies via PropertyOfZack

What I didn’t discuss is just how freakin’ much I loved this coolly-received art rock concept album, from the first listen. Heat Thing is a wildly creative swirl of an album, as twisted and tortured as its main character, an anonymous man who has been tempted into some awful deeds and now awaits his judgment.

Singer Andrew Accardi’s vocals range from barked chants to perverse muttering, from full-throated bellows to smooth crooning; they befit the frayed psyche of the character he plays. Meanwhile, musically, composer/songwriter Brian Lane and producer Mike Sapone pack the album with surprises – the trip hop-like stutters of opener “Piano Wire Number 12”, the swooning cello that rides below Accardi’s falsetto in “Kin”, the dueling sax and fuzzed-out guitar that solo their way through the formless “Defender 237”, the sea-shanty backing chorus of “Baby Shakes”. The choices all seem artful, purposeful, and better still, they’ve chosen right darn near every time.

Heat Thing is also not as out-and-out bizarre as it’s been made out to be. (I hate to think of what will become of the kids who freaked out over “Baby Shakes” when they finally catch up to the Talking Heads and Oingo Boingo.) It’s creepy, catchy,unpredictable, but most of all, it’s fun – a jazzy, unconventional set that, thanks to some big singalong hooks, doesn’t alienate.

I had the good fortune to see Shone’s (very good) debut live performance in February – a show that sold out not only before the album was released, but before the band members names were even announced. They’ve since been sporadically active. I hope that Lane hasn’t felt too burned by the response to continue exploring rock’s weirder corners. Shone may have done themselves in with their own insurmountable hype, but as I wrote following that night, “I hope I get the chance to shout “earthquake! milkshake!” at least one more time. I suspect the crowd at the Mercury Lounge tonight would agree.”

#5 Album of 2013 – Francis and the Lights – Like a Dream

#5 – FRANCIS AND THE LIGHTS – LIKE A DREAM [spotify]

(feat. track – “Like A Dream” [spotify])

It feels a little strange to be placing a four song EP this high on my year end list. (Stranger still, it won’t be the shortest release on this Top Ten Twelve by the time we’re done…). Then again, I’ve been waiting for three years, since 2010’s excellent It’ll Be Better, for something new from Francis & the Lights, and Like A Dream managed to deliver on all my expectations and more. Each track on the EPis near-perfect on its own; together, they work perfectly as a unit. I couldn’t bear to rank it any lower.

Francis Farewell Starlite approaches his music with a profound delicacy. You can feel in his vocal cadence the thought he’s put behind each syllable, every one meted out with the kind of care one might use while handling a Faberge egg, as though each sentence is fragile enough to fracture into bits if not laid down with the precise degree of gingerness required. It’s a gentle touch that Starlite applies to his production as well – each twinkle of piano, each soulful deep-bass backing vocal, each reverb-y crackle of digital percussion aligned just so, with both precision and purpose. There’s an astonishing amount of complexity running just below the surface throughout Like A Dream, and yet it somehow adds up to spare, intimate simplicity.

Also: closing track “Etc.” is my favorite song of 2013. To quote myself:

Spare, economical and understated, “Etc.” feels more like a koan than a song — a lyrical mania that slowly deconstructs itself to a blank calm; a circular piano-and-drum loop that instructs you to breathe deep and slow; a synthy coda paired with airy falsetto that, together, dessicate tension. In a year where the culture wars, especially online, felt like a nightmarish game of Pee Wee Herman’s “Scream Real Loud” (we all lost), Francis Farewell Starlite’s trip from confusion to conclusion bypassed resolution entirely in favor of acceptance; in the process, it kept me sane, three minutes and twenty-seven seconds at a time.

In a bit of serendipitous coincidence, I’m seeing Francis & the Lights live tonight, for the first time in over three years. Like A Dream was well worth waiting for – I have no doubt tonight will be the same.

#6 Album of 2013 – Whitewaits – An Elegant Exit

#6 – WHITEWAITS – AN ELEGANT EXIT [spotify]

(feat. track – “Always” [spotify])

When Rob Rowe of Cause & Effect launched his side-project Whitewaits, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Rowe has been the voice, primary songwriter and lone consistent member of C&E for almost 25 years, and while that band has produced a very distinctive brand of synthpop since day one, it was never an act that seemed limited in its scope.

And indeed, parts of the Whitewaits’ debut release, An Elegant Exit, seem indistinguishable from Cause & Effect’s work. Lead track “Inside,” with its circular synth lead and snapping 1-2 backbeat, could be a lost track from the sessions for Trip (which might just be my all-time favorite synthpop album, and is worthy of a post here all its own someday); “Blackbird Spies” puts a major-key twist on what is otherwise a familiar formula. But the pieces that break way from C&E’s core sound are the album’s strongest moments; the delicate acoustic ballads “Hope Is The Hardest,” and “Always;” the sweet, shimmery twinkles of  “Lost Boys;“ the racing kiss-off of “The Way Back,” the spacey haunt of “Ventolin” (pretty clearly an allusion to the asthma-related backstage death of bandmate Sean Rowley in 1992).

Despite such disparate sounds, An Elegant Exit works precisely because it feels like a compete piece, and that unifying factor that connects the constellation of dots is Rowe himself: between his smoothly sensitive croon, his mastery of lyrical tone – direct and piercing without ever revealing too many details, each disappointment leavened with empathy, joy always tempered with the dull sting of old loss – and his uniformly strong songwriting and composition, there’s not a dud among the album’s eight tracks.

Rob Rowe hasn’t released all that much music over the decades – 3 LPs, a handful of EPs, a few singles and remixes here and there – but it’s all been exemplary, and An Elegant Exit is no exception. If his past work is any guide, I’ll still be enjoying this one 20 years down the road too. If anything, I think it’ll only grow better with age.

#7 Album of 2013 – The 1975 – The 1975

#7 – THE 1975 – THE 1975 [spotify]

(feat. track – “Settle Down” [spotify])

There was a lot of talk around this year’s South By Southwest as to whether, given the ever-increasing corporate spending and the continuing presence of attention vampires big name superstars, the music festival was relevant anymore as an avenue for breaking new bands. I don’t think that one piece of anecdotal evidence is any sort of proof one way or the other, but speaking from my own experience, nobody had a more deafening buzz last year than The 1975, and all those buzzers were right. (Naturally I didn’t manage to actually catch the band there).

The 1975 tickles all of my sweet spots – big memorable pop melodies tempered by splashes of pathos; vaguely danceable mid-tempo grooves; a distinctively-yet-not-annoyingly-voiced singer; little production quirks that act like tiny beacons for anticipation each time I hit replay; smoove 80’s sax. (Let’s be honest, everyone loves a little smoove 80’s sax.) It’s the sound of Blue era Stephan Jenkins, just returned from a short English holiday, soundtracking a John Hughes movie.

If that all sounds a bit kludgy and roundabout, well: it is. The 1975 is a composite, a collage. It’s the borrowed bits and reconfigured parts of other bands. Each constituent piece remains easily identifiable – a U2 chime in one of Adam Hamm’s guitar leads here; a Peter Gabriel cadence in Matthew Healy’s vocal there – but the thing as a whole feels like something new. Taking all the best bits of different bands and smashing them together shouldn’t work this well, but The 1975 are those guys with the moving van, the ones that somehow Tetris all your stuff so that it fits in a space half as big as it should need – through what seems like magic and luck but is clearly really skill, the end product is seamless and efficient. You can question the artfulness of the result, sure, but it’s hard to deny the artfulness of the process.

The outcome is an album that’s easy to like on first listen but doesn’t go stale with age. It’s a bit overlong, sure, but I seem to pick a new favorite flourish up each time i give i a go. Sometimes I get the nagging suspicion that, just maybe, I should feel guilty about loving something so precisely calculated; ultimately, though, I just want to celebrate that all those calculations check out. The 1975 adds up so well.

#8 Album of 2013 – The Here and Now – Born To Make Believe Part 1

#8 – THE HERE AND NOW – BORN TO MAKE BELIEVE PART 1 [spotify]

(feat. track – “Born To Make Believe” [spotify])

Four Year Strong’s 2011 album In Some Way, Shape Or Form was a career-derailing radio-rock clusterfuck, a crassly commercial-minded, Dave Grohl-apeing* nonsensical tangent of an album from a band that had, until that point, been on a rocket ride as the leading light of the late-2000’s easycore wave. It was almost enough to write off the band entirely as having fatally succumbed to brass-ring-reaching, another Rise Against or Avenged Sevenfold (at least those guys got there).

Which is to say, I was totally not expecting this excellent, wide-ranging EP from The Here And Now, a one-man-band side project from Four Year Strong co-vocalist/guitarist Alan Day. Born to Make Believe Part 1 bounces, over the course of five tracks, from bummed-out country rock to acoustic angst to blown-out alternative, without pretense or calculation. When Day indulges his Foo-ier instincts, like on the title track or on closer “Numb Again” they’re tempered with doses of Zeppelinesque** bombast and colorful psych-rock swirls – the results are more earnest, less hamfisted than on In Some Way, Shape or Form. And when he leaves that formula behind on tracks like the ambling “Keep Me In Your Heart” (one of my favorite this year), the sincerity gleams irrepressibly brightly.

The Here And Now is, ostensibly, a side project consisting of songs Day didn’t think fit the FYS mold; considering that FYS’ last release broke their own mold anyway, it’s curious to me that these tracks didn’t get a shot at wider release. If you’re going to take such a hard sonic left turn, might as well do it with excellent material, no?

And make no mistake, Born to Make Believe Part 1 is excellent – maybe the best thing Day has written to date; certainly, one of the best releases of 2013.

* I mean, really. That title is, like, half-a-degree off from The Colour and the Shape. Your ambitions are showing.

** Indeed, the Zep influence is heavy throughout – the acoustic “Broken By You” would fit comfortably among that band’s softer, more poignant moments.

[apologies for the delayed posting – work issues!]

#9 Album of 2013 – Orchestral Manoeuvres In the Dark – English Electric

#9 – ORCHESTRAL MANOEUVRES IN THE DARK – ENGLISH ELECTRIC [spotify]

(feat. track – “The Future Will Be Silent” [spotify])

There was quite a bit of press earlier this year regarding English Electric, hailing Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s twelfth album (and second since regrouping following a fifteen year hiatus) as the proverbial “return to form.” I’m not so sure I see it that way.

Yes, English Electric’s use of musique concrete and synthesized text-to-speech recalls the sound experiments of the now-beloved (if then-disastrously-received) Dazzle Ships. Sure, the relatively spare compositions that populate the album – more Ralf Hutter than John Hughes – bring to mind early albums like Organisation and their self-titled debut. But though English Electric is built of the same constituent parts as those early works, the construction is much more akin to that albums from the OMD’s more commercially successful mid-80s era.

OMD’s early albums cross-pollinated rudimentary pop with abrasive textures, dispersing bright synth lines across fractured soundscapes; they played with distortion and dissonance. The band was building the future from junky, janky synths, cobbling together the leading edge of the computer age and the remaining bits of the industrial age into a sound that straddled the line between epochs. Their music felt like the future, but it was a recognizable future, with clear ties to the then-present.

Today, OMD are working with the gleaming machines that populate our everyday life. The difference shows. English Electric is a product purely of the post-industrial era; there’s none of the grime of manufacturing to be found staining its gleaming laser-tooled chassis. The pop songs here ring pure and true; songwriters Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphries are older men now, and they’ve traded their grit for timeworn sincerity; even experimental tracks like “The Future Will Be Silent” and “Atomic Ranch” clank and hum musically, warmly.*

That could read like it’s a bad thing; I assure you it’s not. A true revisiting of those early albums might make for an exciting experiment, but the results would inevitably sound retro-futuristic.That’s a neat aesthetic, but it’s one that runs counter to OMD’s driving force. Those early albums may have aged into a retro-futurist tinge – a beautiful one, even – but OMD has always been about looking forward to the future, not back to the false future they had predicted as best they could. It’s that spirit, of driving forward, of wholly embracing what’s coming (even the worst of it) with open arms, that has kept OMD both vital and ever evolving.

“English Electric” isn’t just a clever name for an album by one of the progenitors of synth Brittania; it’s also the name of a defunct manufacturing company. English Electric built early airplanes; they constructed some of the first British computers. They quite literally built the future: cutting-edge machines yes, but also machines that transformed the world around them, transformed the way we live and interact with the world, and each other. Machines that changed the basic realities of our day-to-day existence. English Electric the album reiterates that mission statement which the industrial concern and OMD shared.

English Electric isn’t, then, a return to form. English Electric is a return to function. And that’s the real marvel of its achievement.

*If I had to peg English Electric’s sound to somewhere in the band’s timeline, I think 1984’s Junk Culture is the closest referent, but it’s still not a great comp.

#10 Album of 2013 – All There – All There

#10 – ALL THERE – ALL THERE [spotify]

(feat. track – “The Road” [spotify])

Apparently, I had a thing for concept albums in 2013. All There’s self-titled debut (and, quite possibly, only) [I’ve now been told there will be more!] release follows the dramatic arc of Jon and Emily, strained lovers voiced by co-vocalists Maxton Stenstrom and Pilot Chmielarczyk, as their relationship crashes and burns, both literally and figuratively, over the course of a full year divided by seasons. Gorgeously crafted and produced, as well as smartly plotted, it’s one of the must fully-realized concept pieces I’ve heard in a long, long time (and, thus, one of the most compelling).

All There isnt without its flaws – for one, the lyrics get awful dodgy on the album’s latter half*. But the steadily increasing emotional heft of the tracks that surround those lyrics more than pick up the burden. For an album that tells a linear story, a surprising amount of the heavy lifting on All There is done by the ambient/experimental soundscapes that undergird the lyrics – the story could likely be told without words at all, though that would deprive us of Stenstrom’s baritone anguish (which would be a real loss). So much is carried in the details – spliced bits of ambient sound, wooshes and blips that add both depth and context, digital drumbeats that quicken and slow like pulses. Snippets of voice mails from the characters’ acquaintances fill out an otherwise insular world, painting Jon and Emily as people with external lives, almost literally fleshing them out, making them feel like real people in the middle of real lived human lives. The result is rich and inviting; I find myself pulled into their world as I listen, the awkward backseat passenger passively suffering their breakdown.

The result is a harrowing but compelling listen – I’ve seen The Antlers’ Hospice mentioned as a comparison, and while that’s not really on point sonically**, it speaks well to both the album’s nauseous themes and its quality. All There is a dark, almost desolate, listen, but its one that kept compelling me to come back in for more.

*Though you could probably argue that they’re true to the characters who, like most of us, aren’t nearly as inscrutable and unknowable and different as they think they are – which, in many ways, is what makes them relatable. There’s something that feels true, if unsettling, in seeing my own emotional banality reflected back at me.

**What is? I hear a lot of Nine Inch Nails’ The Fragile and The Downward Spiral – imagine an album-length version of “Hurt” – along with a solid dose of Death Cab For Cutie at their mopey-est, plus a dash of darkwave.

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