Review Summary: An exercise in great songwriting over originality. Result: a great record easily overlooked in the obscurity of indie pop rock.
It seems to me that artists today put a high priority on originality. I disagree with this philosophy. I maintain that good songwriting should always hold priority over originality. It is, of course, becoming exponentially harder to come up with a completely original idea. And if songwriting takes a backseat to originality, it’s quality is hit-or-miss. I personally don’t care to hear something that’s never been done before if it doesn’t effectively invoke any real emotion. Barcelona’s debut album, Absolutes, is not very original. One may even argue it is derivative. However, I find the songwriting to be exceptional, and that is enough for me.
In terms of genre, Absolutes, is an indie album reminiscent of bands like Death Cab For Cutie, Coldplay, and The Fray. I don’t listen to these bands very much. I seem to have an aversion to bands that have achieved mainstream success. So I may be biased when comparing these bands to Barcelona, but I feel it’s a fair and accurate comparison. And I find the songwriting to be more genuine and effective than that of most similar artists. The overtones on the album also seem to be more ambient and atmospheric than your typical indie pop rock. Absolutes leans more so toward alternative than pop. But they effectively blend the two.
To describe the album as a whole, I feel it’s important to note that there are two versions of the album. The first was released in 2007, the second in 2009. The re-release in 2009 was remastered, contained three new songs (four including a new bonus track), excluded one song, and featured a completely different version another, titled Colors. The album as a whole tells the same story. However, the re-release became more cohesive and accessible than the original. One of the added tracks, The Takers, is even a highlight of the album, in my opinion. The production is also much clearer on the second.
The album opens with Falling Out Of Trees, a stand-out song containing an engaging “breakdown” at the end. I had seen Barcelona live a few years ago and the end of this song, when played live, carries a massive amount of energy. I see why they open their live set and the album with it. However, much of this energy is lost on the recording. It’s an element that is only truly experienced live, and I can not fault any producer for not being able to capture it. Regardless, this song sets the mood for the rest of the album well, which rises and falls in appropriate intervals to keep most of it interesting. The slower parts of the album seem to drag at some points, but also boast some of the highlights: see Get Up. Most of the time, the songs are built around the piano and vocals, which is to be expected from a band of this genre. The guitar parts range from groovy to atmospheric and add great depth. The percussion also stays both unique and appropriate throughout, and also helps drive a lot of the energy. The bass parts are not bad, but mostly unremarkable. Though it does take the lead from time to time.
The lyrical material on Absolutes is consistent, relatable, clever, and mostly original. Indie bands similar to Barcelona make use of intentionally witty, emotional hooks. Sometimes, I become annoyed by this, as it seems all-too-blatant. Vocalist/lyricist, Brian Fennell, makes considerable use of wit while writing, but it seems to come more naturally, and never seems at all cliche. There are a lot of lines on this album I like a lot, such as the opening verse for Lesser Things:
“You look good, but you don’t look great
She’s got you saying things on tape
You wouldn’t tell your best of friends
You think this cycle never ends
Until you are old. It’s sad, just how old you are.”
Absolutes is one of my favorite albums, despite the fact it may not be completely original. It effectively conveys a range of emotional energy that begs the listener to share, without insisting on remaining melancholy throughout, but on occasion incites anger and frustration. As it draws to a close, the mood seems to darken with Numb and Please Don’t Go. The shift in tone can be attributed to the lyrics and the addition of more orchestral strings, which provides a great sense of closure to the album.