Review Summary: Captive to complacency.
Since their inception, Slaves have been a band that’s as much about the narrative its members painted for themselves as that of the actual music. And my lord, how that narrative has shifted over the course of a mere year and a half! First it was a story of redemption - of frontman Jonny Craig finally overcoming his demons and making a fresh start in the music scene. However, lineup changes and a steady dose of controversy, culminating in the band’s expulsion from Warped Tour mid-way through their run, have quickly proved that story a manufactured myth, as it became clear that the old Jonny Craig is still among us. So the band quickly replaced the comeback narrative with a fresh one… this time, it’s about being there for the fans no matter what, and focusing on the music
. Considering this is a band fronted by a man who not long ago was scamming his own fanbase for drug money, and reportedly stumbling into studios blackout drunk to ad-lib vocal takes, it’s safe to say that both of those claims could be met with a healthy deal of skepticism. But Craig has in the past had a way of defying both odds and expectations to produce great records in a variety of projects, as his raw talent - coupled with talented collaborators who bring out his best - have shone through most of the obstacles he put in his own path.
Perhaps under different circumstances, this sort of minor miracle may have taken place yet again. However, on the album we did get, Routine Breathing
, the weak links that have threatened to sink virtually every Jonny Craig project ever made prove insurmountable, leading to a record that feels largely phoned-in, overlong and devoid of genuine moments of inspiration. The primary force that has always prevented Craig from reaching his full potential is his inability or unwillingness to push himself as a songwriter, unless dragged along by someone else. He has never been a particularly inspired lyricist, typically relying on his golden voice to help hide the fact that his songs tackle almost exclusively relationship issues, often from the rather narrow perspective of someone who seems unable or unwilling to accept any blame for what goes wrong in his life, and is happy to shift blame onto other parties. Upon re-examination of the lyrics of Craig’s solo song “Children of Divorce”, one finds little to no introspection, and some shady moral justification to boot. And yet these messages were nearly always packaged in a relatable, aesthetically pleasing manner, leading most listeners to happily let them slide.
The problem with this formula is it requires Craig to lean on the compositions he is handed by his collaborators to do most of the heavy lifting… and Slaves have consistently shown themselves to be tepid songwriters, content to recycle tired post hardcore formulas and cliches a sleep-inducing number of times. If you’ve heard Through Art We Are All Equals
, you’ve largely heard it all before… which is to say, this is Emarosa-lite. Where Craig’s former bandmates would push for greater technicality or experimental song structures, Slaves is content on songs like “The Hearts of Our Broken” and “Drowning in My Addiction” to stick to traditional verse-chorus-verse structure and an over-reliance on vaguely ambient production, courtesy of Cameron Mizell, complete with the addition of choir backing vocals. The lack of much excitement in the instrumental department puts the spotlight squarely on Craig’s shoulders, and the listener quickly finds that he has little to say. When he’s not covering the usual relationship bases, he’s dropping cliched braggadocio lines about “making a mark” and overcoming adversity. The chorus of “Burning Our Morals Away” is an apt summation of what the listener can expect:
“Cause we are, we are the real ones
Who will refuse to run and hide
Watch us pour our hearts into every note
While they fall to the side
Cause we are
Fight fire with fire
Only lessons learned
Rise above the ashes
From the bridges burned”
However, not all on Routine Breathing is steeped in mediocrity. More than halfway into the album’s overlong 15-track runtime, a breath of fresh air is released in dramatic fashion in the form of “Winter Everywhere”, a stunning power ballad featuring Tilian Pearson of Craig’s former band Dance Gavin Dance, and quite possibly one of the best songs either singer has ever appeared on. Over mellow acoustic plucking, Jonny and Tilian sing tenderly and sincerely of a love gone astray, as each section of the song slowly builds to an explosive, emotive payoff that is completely earned:
“I want to go back to the days in our car
Where we sang the loudest by far”
The track closes with the same choir vocals that feature in various sections of the album, but here instead of feeling like a forced bid to sound “epic”, they add to gospel-inspired flavor of the composition and push it into greatness. On a better album, “Winter Everywhere” would be the emotional centerpiece. As it stands, the song is both the clear highlight of the album, and a startling contrast to the mediocrity that surrounds it. After listening, one can only wonder what the band could have achieved if they had applied the same passion and effort into the album’s entire runtime instead of adhering so closely to formula. It certainly would have resulted in a more interesting and consequential listen than what we are offered on Routine Breathing
, an album that largely fails to differentiate itself from its predecessor in any consequential way. If this is the result of Slaves “giving it all for the fans” and “focusing on the music”, maybe they should go back to courting controversy and getting kicked off tours. At least that shit is entertaining.