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I Really Had to Fight to Relate… Silversun Pickups

10-15-2015 | By David Williamson | Issue 81

SilverSun Pickups cover

I think I made a mistake, one of those forest-for-the-trees kinds, in hunting for a radio-friendly single on the new Silversun Pickups album. I'd been spoiled with their previous offerings and came into this album, headphones swinging, lazily assuming I was going to be getting more of the same. It'd be really, really, amazingly good same, mind you, but the same nonetheless. This did not happen. At all. Now I'm not saying it's entirely lacking in the singles department as "Nightlight" will be popping up frequently on every alt radio station, hallelujah and amen. It's just that the band is clearly looking elsewhere and beyond with this album. This just might be their first intrinsically-cohesive-album-where-every-track-is-a-window-to-the-next and one of those rare, wonderful albums where you're really doing yourself a disservice if you don't listen to it front to back, multiple times.

The affair kicks off like it's 80's EDM-lite. Soft. Coldplay by way of Peter Gabriel-era Genesis. Synth-y. It reminds me, maybe unfairly, of my first impressions of the more recent Muse records where I went in expecting major stadium-shaking power to be expended and instead got a slow-burn creep that lodged firmly in the back of my skull with a long, lit fuse. It's a five plus minute track to start the album that weirdly feels more like an interlude number between big songs than it does an opener. It sets a vibe that feels composed of frenetic intentionalism and a tempo that upon further listening's seems to be essential in tying the album together. A full minute at the end of the first track, with piano chords ringing out like a xylophone, is a wonderfully curious call that hints at other coming experiments in style and form. As the album progresses you move through tracks layered with thick bass lines (an exceedingly popular touch in rock music lately), buzzy keyboards and enough "beep-blop-boop" accents to qualify as a lost Konami soundtrack.

It felt more and more like a spun-off "concept" album, the further in I got into Better Nature, though the concept seemed to escape me. Maybe (certainly) I was searching too hard for what I remembered the band to be for me to easily accept what they're laying down now. I came into this album expecting to get another dose of big guitars and driving Pumpkins-style rock and instead I'm experiencing a whole new aesthetic, fully formed and wickedly functional. The moment it clicked as an album for me came when I began to think of it less in terms of concept-unto-itself-album, and more as a companion piece in a larger work of art. The video for "Nightlight" expands the story on both ends of the song, introducing visual and musically contemporary elements that go hand-in-drumstick with the albums oeuvre. It's essential to the album and ties the two halves together in a dust jacket-by-way-of-2015 kind of route. The band seemingly is taking its song-video integration cues from Queens of the Stone Age, and that's a very good thing indeed.

Thematically the album moves in mysterious ways. It feels dated and current all at the same time. I dare you to name a single 80's movie or TV remake here in 2015 that could not use "Latchkey Kids" as it's penultimate, big emotional moment song and improve the film a million billion percent immediately. Heck, I'll go farther and argue the entire album could be used to score re-envisioned 80's properties. A Voltron movie? Check. A gritty Shortcircuit reboot (where Number 5 is a drone!)? Check. BreakfastClub2015OMG!!! (should not be done) (do not do this, please, I'm begging you) (RIP John Hughes)? Check. Teen Witch (the superior movie version, not the serviceable TV show)? Check. They've got the video soundtrack of the 80's updated for right now and it is glorious!

I can throw around descriptor words by the bucket like "pop-esque" "experimental," "rhythmically diverse" and "danceable" but that doesn't really tell you why this album works in a way their previous albums only hinted at. Silversun Pickups' early albums relied upon and succeeded with dense, growling guitars, crunchy distortion and layered waves of big sound all jumbled up in a haphazard and punk-lite way. This is eschewed here for structure, both in music and concept. Upon repeated listening's I grew to love that the bands approach has evolved to embrace more nuanced textures and delicate sounds, touches which they seemingly only featured in their vocals previously. I absolutely adore the lead singer's voice and inflection choices, an instrument and talent on par with the legendary Jeremy Enigk of Sunny Day Real Estate fame. It's encouraging to see the band match the tonality he brings vocally with their instrumentation and composition this time around. To be wholly accurate and embarrassingly cliché, the pacing and energy throughout the album demonstrates a willful restraint at times that seems to hint at, as the title suggests, their Better Nature.

What comes across in the albums entirety is an obsessively detailed electro-rock soundscape, shifting and transitioning at just the right moments to bring both emphasis and clarity to the new musical avenues they are pursuing. On the sliding scale of radical sound transformation think Beck going from Midnight Vultures to Sea Change or better yet, The Killers transitioning from Hot Fuss to Sam's Town. Every note on those albums betrays the artist's intent to move into a different sound atmosphere than they previously inhabited. And the key word here truly is "atmosphere". Every note knits together in crafting a distinct and singular relationship with the band as a whole, where the previous separation of musicians and instruments has given way to a more harmonious whole, worth much more than the sum of its parts (thanks Aristotle!).

Two quick tips here: one, listen with the volume about two notches above where you usually do. This album needs to be played just outside your volume-comfort zone to properly impact. Second and crucially, this is a grower of an album, especially if you have more than a passing familiarity with the band. Listen repeatedly, listen often. It makes for epic gaming or driving music, providing the kind of background soundtrack that seeps in at the edges till you're consciously spinning the track back for just one more listen. Just listen, at work, at home, with friends, with your kids. This album is delightfully infectious and deserves all the playbacks you can offer (and more).

I think the most favorable A-B comparison I can personally make for Better Nature is to the latest album from Mumford and Sons. Marcus and Co. went into the studio with a new electric sound, with a new lease on their artistic license and came out with what I consider to be the one of the best albums of the year, this album notwithstanding. They maintained the integrity of who they were as artists while brilliantly showcasing who they are now, at this moment, as a band. In a similar way Silversun Pickups have refreshed their sound and found a new space to work in musically. It's more than another gear or another level, it's a whole new canvas with new techniques and new artistic implements to be employed.

One of the neatest things that I "got" with this record is a fantastic sense of rediscovered familiarity with the band. It's been three years and a greatest-hits/singles compilation since their last release and I felt that space in-between keenly. I found listening to this album to be a bit like picking up a friendship that has been distant for some time. Somebody moved away, got married, changed jobs. You've both grown, you've both changed in small and big ways and yet the core of who you both are remains. Spending time hearing about all the new and exciting things that have happened in the time between…that's this album. It's the musical equivalent of asking an old friend "so, what's new?" and then listening to ten tracks laying it all out for you in a fresh and yet comfortingly familiar way, which re-engages you and leaves you chatting into the wee hours of the morning.

Better Nature – Silver Sun Pickups