Review Summary: A remarkably consistent offering from a band transitioning into the mainstream.
I have always found it puzzling when bands denounce their albums. On one hand, a band that indulged in laziness and derivative songwriting certainly owes it to their fans---nay, to themselves---to apologize for the subpar work. But where exactly does that leave us when the band created, in fact, a remarkably strong and consistent effort? Weezer did the same with Pinkerton
; after critics and fans alike trashed the album, they followed in the same vein, practically disowning the album. How foolish must they have felt when critics and fans made a complete 180 on the album a few years later, instead heralding it as one of the best albums of the 1990s? Anberlin falls in the same category with New Surrender
, their major label debut. It’s too easy to blame Universal Records and to point to the one year creation time as evidence of some sort of letdown; why not, instead, look at the music?
The reality of the album is that Anberlin crafted their most consistent album with New Surrender
. Sure, the album lacks in the gem department, with none of the songs truly on the level of (*fin) or ‘Unwinding Cable Car.’ But then again, by which criteria are we measuring the album? Maybe the highlights of the albums would have had comparatively more luster if they paired up against ‘Adelaide’ instead of the stronger ‘Breaking.’ Of course, the influence of a capital-driven record company will add a notably radio-friendly vibe to the album, but does broad appeal automatically make a release poor? After all, this is Anberlin, a band that has teetered on the verge of the mainstream anyways.
After a good listen to New Surrender
, listeners familiar with Anberlin’s previous work will be surprised with the glut of mid-tempo rockers and ballads, as the band surprisingly ditches the standard alt-rock norm. This is not to say the album lacks aggression; in contrast, this is a marked improvement over Cities
. Opener ‘The Resistance’ shows Stephen Christian at his best; the song forsakes a lot of catchiness for pure aggression. It’s slower-paced than its Cities
counterpart ‘Godspeed’ and a lot heavier, and you know Christian means every word as he yells, “Take what you want, you paper tigers/ Too late to make demands, when you’ve got a riot on your hand.” A surprising inclusion in New Surrender
is a remade version of ‘The Feel Good Drag.’ Whether or not the song is better than the original is less important to the fact that it was remade. What better than to get the record company off your back by promising to rerecord a strong single that, when re-released with more publicity and a better name, is likely to fare extremely well? It works perfectly within the album, too, adding much-needed punch to a middle section lacking exactly that. Keeping the aggression, Anberlin rolls out ‘Disappear,’ its more punk-influenced chorus shining in the album.The lyrics to the chorus of 'Disappear'---“Alone, left alone/ Watch us slowly disappear with time/ Alone, left alone/ Forgotten, lost, and left behind”---is standard Anberlin fare, nothing poor but nothing quite exceptional. This can be held true of most of the lyrics on New Surrender
---not as passionate or sincere as their previous effort's 'Inevitable' or '(*fin)' but good enough to avoid dragging the album down.
Of course, the uptempo songs were never the issue with most people in the first place. What we see in New Surrender
is Anberlin exchange the alternative rock numbers for more atmospheric ballads. Gone are the days of ‘There is No Mathematics to Love or Loss’ and ‘A Whisper in their Clamor’; taking their place are ‘Haight St.’ and ‘Younglife.’ These are different from standard arena ballads: with fantastic production, each of these similarly-tempo'd songs manages to sound different, thus avoiding homogeneity in the middle of the album. Despite the uninspired chorus, the light guitar chords and clearly audible bassline of ‘Younglife’ create a noticeably light environment. Both ‘Retrace’ and ‘Haight St.’ likewise are extremely successful at creating their moods. The former has one of the best verses of the album and the latter is an almost pop-punk anthem to youth with an entirely appropriate message of carpe diem
However, Anberlin is best when within their comfort level. 'Breathe' is the token acoustic track, and is a gorgeous melody. Christian's comfort is palpable as he sings about his faith. Likewise, the infectious 'Breaking' harkens back to the band's earlier efforts with bouncy piano chords and probably the catchiest chorus in the album. Anberlin has a knack for closing albums strongly, and thankfully they do not disappoint here either. Soft Skeletons is possibly the strongest song on New Surrender
. The song corresponds a heartrending tale of drug abuse, and Christian's empathetic yet emphatic delivery matches the melodic guitar parts. Yet the most impressive of the album, as usual, is the closer, ‘Miserabile Visu.’ It took a while for the song to grow on me, but it is an extremely remarkable song. It merges the atmospheric verses with lines full of Biblical imagery and deep lyrics. Of course it all crescendos into a grandiose ending, and while it may not live up to (*fin), it sure as hell does a good job trying.
sees Anberlin putting a newfound emphasis on atmosphere. Variation, which occurred in Cities
through tempo and pacing, appears as atmosphere and aggression levels. That is a decidedly more subtle and mature approach to take. And while Cities
is clearly the superior record, there is no doubt in my mind that this album is more mature. It really comes as no surprise that I did not have to mention the guitarists, bassist, or drummer---the band functions as one cohesive unit, for better or for worse. In one perspective, the entirely competent drummer and guitarist are overshadowed by the perfectly produced atmosphere; in another perspective, the atmosphere is such a fundamental catalyst in driving forward the album that they are more in the forefront collectively than ever. I suppose it is the same with New Surrender
, actually. It really just depends what angle you look at the album from. From mine, what it aims to do, it does well.