Review Summary: You're just lonely sometimes.
Bruce Springsteen lit a torch in 1978 when he released Darkness on the Edge of Town
. Although it has been traditional to point toward Born to Run
as his definitive rock statement, I would argue that Darkness
was actually the record where he came into his own as a genre-defining artist. Born to Run
is a once-in-a-lifetime record, something that begins and ends with itself. Nothing could follow it with an expectation to exceed or live up to it. But Darkness
opened a door and kept it propped. For a little while, it seemed like The Gaslight Anthem would be the ones to step over the threshold, but they failed by essentially copying Springsteen’s style by making “Born in the U.S.A.
plus tattoos” with The ’59 Sound
(and then Brian Fallon had the gall to complain about fans requesting Bruce covers during Gaslight Anthem shows, even though he filled an entire album with references to Bobby Jean and being on fire and the fourth of July on the fu
cking Jersey boardwalk). Fallon got the sound right but not the fundamental spirit, and any serious rock fan knows that the spirit is all that matters.
However unlikely it might seem upon first thought, Trophy Scars are the torchbearers and the inheritors of Springsteen’s crown. Their music is what happens when that fringe darkness that Springsteen always kept slightly off camera is framed in B-movie close-up, smiling and doused in blood. Holy Vacants
is phantasmagorical, tough to pin down, and slippery with its intentions. Themes are introduced and discarded and then revisited when you would least expect it. Power, love, memory, holiness, darkness. And fear, so much fear. The characters that inhabit the album’s world are hunted, always running and always afraid, and every action and word is governed by that fear. It’s interesting to look at how bleak some of the parenthetical lyrics are: “Our life is a prison.” “Heaven can’t hear us.” These are lines that are chanted in ironically holy choir tones or repeated paradoxically amongst contradictory lyrics, but they serve to hint toward some hidden truth about the music, which is formless, ever-shifting, adapting to each mood, alternately intense and nurturing. The best parts of classic rock find a home in Holy Vacants
without ever seeming forced. Trophy Scars have essentially mastered the art of the expressive guitar solo, something that has become a joke in rock music. The production of their music has improved with each new release, and on Holy Vacants
, it’s just about perfect, from the crisp guitar tones to the horns and strings to the buzzing, dark undertow of songs like “Burning Mirror” and “Gutted.”
Their songs are often ridiculous. Point to any Trophy Scars song and there will probably be a lyric that sounds awful, at least on paper: “I said, ‘Who you buying them groceries for?’ She said, ‘It ain’t your business no more.’” “Your secret’s safe, man. I DON’T GIVE A FU
CK!” “I used to be the mayor of this city, and the girls, they look so pretty.” These lines exist on Holy Vacants
as well (“Oh girl, now that you know, practicing voodoo is not my M.O.”). But every time I hear one, I’m reminded of NBC’s excellent Hannibal
, the way it pulls off insane scenes and stories with a sly wink, nodding at the audience and inviting them to embrace the weirdness (“Is your social worker in that horse?”). Self-awareness sometimes makes all the difference, and Trophy Scars are full of it. Springsteen wrote his album The River
because he started to realize that life is full of paradoxes, and he populated that album with songs that sounded happy yet contained an undercurrent of despair, as well as songs that were slow and somber but contained glimmers of hope. Trophy Scars have basically always known that, and when they release an album like Holy Vacants
with an elaborate story and concept about killing angels, you can rest assured that it’s really about what every
Trophy Scars album is about in some form: a love story.
The album ends with the coda “Nyctophobia” - fear of darkness - and given that it repeats the end of “Qeres” (Qeres being the only substance that can kill an angel, supposedly), it is safe to assume that both characters are either dead or as good as dead. But there’s a key difference, and it comes back to those despairing parentheticals. “You are not alone” is repeated several times toward the end of the album in a way that makes it sound parenthetical, but looking at the liner notes, there are no parentheses to be found. Holy Vacants
is opaque, only lifting the shadowed drapes for short bursts of narrative expression. And to my ears, “you are not alone” is the only canonical line on the album.