Review Summary: Defeater’s third LP is what you make of it.
Defeater’s third LP Letters Home is upon us, and it is a lot to take in at first. Musically, it’s a big change from their previous album and along with that comes a new story in the ever-developing post-WWII epic that revolves around each release. I’ve always admired Defeater’s ambition to connect all of their music under a central theme, but that level of ambition runs the risk of having the little things that make an album excellent give way to the larger framework.
Fortunately, Defeater has been able to keep both the little details and larger concepts in check. And as far as attention to detail creating a more enriched experience goes, Letters Home knocks it out of the park. Something that’s almost impossible to miss if listening to the whole album without stopping is the lyrical repetition. Opening track, "Bastards" almost comes to a complete stop to emphasize vocalist Derek Archambault’s line “All I see is the bastard in me” – a point that sets the stage for Letters Home and serves as a more true beginning to the album than first two~ minutes of music does. The same line is repeated with a jarringly hopeless tinge to it at the end of the album closer, "Bled Out", signifying closure to the story that began with "Bastards". Additionally, Letters Home hearkens back to words and phrases reminiscent of their 2009 EP, Lost Ground. It actually makes a direct reference to the title in "Hopeless Again". which is a great (that is to say, coincidental) way to connect the dots between the stylistic choice to have the music sound more like that album and less like their most recent release, Empty Days &Sleepless Nights (2011).
That change in style may not be such a welcomed decision to everyone, but it undoubtedly suits the vision for Letters Home. Thematically, this album is very much pessimistic and raw. Additionally, this is Defeater’s most consistently heavy body of work to date, so the grittier, less-refined sound in the debut album and Lost Ground is fitting for the aesthetic of Letters Home. The reason why this shouldn’t be looked at as musical regression is because of how well the style lends itself to memorable moments on the album. "Blood In My Eyes" wouldn’t be anywhere near as brooding and "Rabbit Foot" as crushingly heavy if not for the hearkening back to an earlier iteration of Defeater’s sound.
Conversely, I think if it weren’t for the continuing expansion of canon in the discography-spanning story that has defined Defeater thus far, Letters Home wouldn’t be nearly as exciting. As someone who was immediately drawn to, and subsequently compelled by the narrative that developed within the music, I struggled to gauge my excitement for hearing new music versus hearing what happens next in the story. But that’s the beauty of Defeater: Their identity as both adept songwriters AND storytellers has me not only excited for the music, but for that feeling when the music and narrative come together to create something much more rewarding.
However, for those of you who could care less about the story, there is still very much to enjoy here, albeit nothing near as praiseworthy. In a vacuum, the music is good, but has its ups and downs. At best, Letters Home is a maven of chilling atmosphere and desperate aggression. The end of "No Saviour" is one of those moments where everything Defeater excels at comes together in perfect unison. But at worst the album fails to be interesting musically, and while no songs are completely without merit the first few tracks save for ‘Bastards’ can be underwhelming. Generally speaking, the latter half of Defeater’s latest is much more interesting that the former.
An element that stays consistently impressive throughout, however, is the drumming. Letters home is drummer Joe Longobardi’s first recorded appearance for Defeater and he absolutely stands out amongst the other members. Across the entire album his rhythms create atmosphere for each track, and do well to compliment the other instruments, though the drumming truly shines in isolation with the vocals. The endings of ‘Bastards’ and ‘No Saviour’ exemplify how well the vocals and drums are able to play off each other without the help of the other instruments.
The best way to experience Letters Home is in full, and with at least a loose grasp of the story. In that context the album is miles better than in any way otherwise. Fortunately, each component of the album is strong enough to stand alone, but you would really be missing out on a lot Defeater has to offer if you ignore the depth there is to “Letters Home.”
Originally posted here: http://www.mtscollective.com/2013/07/review-defeater-letters-home.html#more