Review Summary: Not enough is happening at once.
Sometimes, discussing an album in the context of its immediate predecessors is a lazy crutch, an introduction that writes itself. But with a band as polarizing as La Dispute, to neglect context would be to prove oneself ignorant. Somewhere At the Bottom of the River Between Vega and Altair
was an indulgent mess of an album, but even as Jordan Dreyer desperately tried to convince every listener that his breakup was really the biggest thing to happen to anyone ever
, no one could deny the energy and passion that the band delivered, misplaced though it may be. Wildlife
was an astounding refinement, channeling Dreyer's frantic rants into a more focused, balanced effort where La Dispute was no longer 100% about Dreyer (even if he still was clearly the ringleader), and turning junior-high "woe is me" to poignant tales of legitimate frustration and confusion. By all accounts, La Dispute had figured themselves out.
Rooms of the House
, though, heads too far down the trail that Wildlife
blazed, forgetting what made La Dispute catch the post-hardcore world's attention in the first place. Yes, fine, Somewhere
was cringe-inducingly melodramatic at times. But it's hard to imagine a post-hardcore band that was more desperate to convey its emotion. We laughed at Somewhere
, but we could relate on some level, even if it was just in the sense of dredging up 8th-grade memories. But Wildlife
, though doomed to criticism by many simply by bearing the La Dispute name, told us stories that were not just far better worded, but far more universal. Not every listener has experienced the decay of a suburban hometown -- but everyone, certainly, has wondered about the validity of their own pain and sadness, and why some people are just so much better equipped to handle it all. It was deeply personal, perhaps autobiographical, but there was an unshakable sense that when Dreyer sang our names in unison, he wasn't lying.
And here lies the crux of this latest effort's flaws. Personal stories are all well and good, compelling even. But to put a personal story to music and demand that it's worthy of public attention requires some element of universality, some common ground where everyone can meet. And Rooms of the House
, though in many ways a musically more impressive album, lacks that common ground -- which is why it's merely a pleasantly enjoyable album that falls several steps short of fans' colossal expectations.
In a classic case of exceptions proving rules, we have the album's lead single, "For Mayor in Splitsville." It's as radio-ready as La Dispute has ever been, with something that comes dangerously close to a chorus, and it finds Dreyer returning to the topic of a failing relationship. But there's no operatic tale here. He pulls mundane details, like memories of playing house and the look in a father's eye, finds a striking metaphor for his own relationship, and points out an ecclesiastical futility in it all -- "But I guess, in the end, we just moved furniture around." It's a vastly more mature, better-executed version of the entirety of Somewhere
's message, and arguably the album's strongest song.
But as a counterpoint we have songs like "35". Musically, it's fantastic. The tradeoffs between somber buildups and gritty, snappy stanzas are well-executed -- but the lyrics fall flat, regaling a tale of a car crashing into a river and throwing in some half-hearted ties to Dreyer's (or his main character's) own life. But the connections are too flimsy for any lasting impact. "The Child We Lost 1963" should, by all means, be an emotional tour de force, and the band paces themselves well before the inevitable climax. But the song doesn't have anything beneath the surface -- it's a very specific tale of a lost child, with nothing for most listeners to relate to. It's not that the topics themselves don't have potential to be heavy hitters like "King Park" or "I See Everything"; too many times Dreyer just leaves the listener wondering where he's going with all of this.
On a clinically objective level, there are enjoyable songs on this album than failures. In fact, just about every song, from the zippy "Stay Happy There" to the surprisingly stripped-down closer "Objects in Space," has some redeeming value. The sudden emphasis on dynamics is a welcome change of pace. Devoid of historical context, this is, on the whole, quite a strong album. But Rooms of the House
lacks the gripping immediacy of Wildlife
, that urgent sense that makes you feel like you absolutely have
to listen to it again just to process the tide of emotions. For all the improvements in the songwriting process, Dreyer is still front and center, and it's his stories that elevate La Dispute above its contemporaries, or bury the band as a quirky experiment. His latest tales can be appreciated, maybe even enjoyed, but they just don't captivate.