Review Summary: Touché Amorè's Stage Four is a crushingly beautiful meditation on grief and loss.
Touché Amorè's Stage Four is a crushingly beautiful meditation on grief and loss. It's the kind of record that makes you want to hold those close to you just a little tighter. Above all, it’s a deeply human album that draws meaning from the mundane moments and links them to the existential, while also tackling the grieving process head on. On the album, vocalist Jeremy Bolm takes the listener through all of this with an honesty that draws you in with his elegant, yet straightforward lyricism. He doesn't beat you over the head with obtuse metaphor, but instead lets you experience his personal journey through simple confessional style reflection. Behind him, the band is more focused than ever, expanding their sound with an emphasis on cleaner guitar tones, bigger sounding drums, and moving song structures. This provides the perfect backdrop for Bolm's search for meaning in tragedy.
As hinted at in the title, Stage Four revolves around frontman Jeremy Bolm's relationship with his mother during her final days battling cancer and his subsequent coming to terms with her loss. It's a brutally honest look at what it means to lose someone, made all the more intimate by the majority of the lyrics being written in first person, directly addressing his late mother. On New Halloween he laments, "I haven't found the courage to listen to your last message to me." After the final note rings out on album closer, Skyscraper, we get to hear this message. It's nothing profound or life shattering, just a simple message about dropping off prescriptions. It's the type of ordinary that resonates due to its simplicity. A voicemail you can easily see yourself saving on your own phone. The inclusion of this message at the end provides some sense of closure to the heavy themes hanging over the album, while the rest sees Bolm working to make sense of things before ultimately arriving at this point. The album serves as his search for understanding his relationship and what it means to carry her memory. The way in which he addresses this is something to be admired. He wastes no time wallowing in sadness but essentially asks the existential questions that loss brings. In doing this, he grapples with the knowledge of her faith, and his lack thereof, what it means to pick up the pieces after such a loss, and how it affects life moving forward. The honest way in which these subjects are addressed pulls you in, allowing you to question them yourself.
On Water Damage, Bolm discusses a set of four coffee cups that becomes three when the medication causes his mother’s hands to shake and drop one of them. This brief glimpse into living with a loved one's sickness illustrates the magnitude of small moments, and the memories attached to everyday objects. Small details like this crop up repeatedly throughout the album, taking you through the grieving process firsthand and allowing you to draw meaning from them. A major strength of the band is how they can make these small details seem monumental in scope. Though seemingly insignificant, they take on an aspect of sentimentality to the listener, and build a larger framework for viewing the rest of the album.
On other songs he is haunted by the times he spent away during her final moments, trying to balance his career with his desire to be closer to her. On Eight Seconds Bolm discusses receiving a call and putting off answering it. After playing a set and avoiding the phone socializing, he finally brings himself to return the call and hears the news, "she passed away about an hour ago, while you were on stage living the dream." You can hear first hand the guilt in his voice as addresses this. The song starts off fast, but as the conclusion comes the song switches into a manic sounding confession, before abruptly ending. The album then switches to single Palm Dreams, where Bolm questions the reason why his mother moved to California and ponders what her dreams could have been. This seamless transition flows extremely well, and illustrates the near perfect pacing throughout.
Musically, the band has never sounded tighter. A natural continuation from Is Survived By, the guitars sound even brighter this time around, often taking on an almost post-rock feel in certain moments. Accompanying this shift, the songs themselves have also grown. No longer afraid to let songs breathe, six out of the element tracks on the album are over three minutes long. This allows for the arrangements to sound even more massive, with bigger moments and more drawn out transitions. While some may miss the directness found on earlier outings, this maturity in song writing leads to some incredible moments. Songs carry more dynamics, with the latter half of the album being full of melodic shifts. This isn't to say the band has toned down their intensity, if anything thematically and sonically this album contains some of the heaviest material they've written to date. It's more that the band has learned how to take their time in allowing the songs to build themselves up, making the moments they create hit even harder. The album isn't "heavy" for the sake of being heavy, but instead the instrumentals work to emphasize the haunting subject matter. The beautiful atmospheric instrumentals add a depth to the words being said that echo in the way of post-rock, but carry the intent of a post-hardcore band. This combination has been a growing theme throughout the past few albums, but it is executed best here. That is to say all the changes here have been hinted at before. They aren't so much a radical departure, but more so a natural growth. Everything they’ve done before has been taken to the next level, and you can tell that that the band is operating at its highest caliber.
One major change that is sure to throw off some however, is the introduction of clean vocals. Bolm's voice falls somewhere between Matt Berninger from The National and Leonard Cohen, and is a highlight on a few of the songs it appears in. This inclusion of singing doesn't detract or take away from the intensity, but adds a new dimension of emotional vulnerability. It's a quiet and almost mournful introduction to Water Damage. The song starts off soft, with shimmery, almost shoegaze-like guitar and Bolm's voice floating just above. In closer Skyscraper, Bolm sings a powerful duet with folk singer Julien Baker that builds into the album's climax, a breathtaking moment that ends the album in a monumental wave of feeling. Probably the most divisive inclusion is the two sung verses on Benediction. While his singing voice may not be the strongest, it carries an earnestness that makes it hard to look down on. If you were a fan of the band's cover of The National's, Available, you'll find it easy to get into this new aspect of the band's sound. Some hardcore purists, may find themselves skipping tracks like Benediction or Skyscraper, but those who come in with an open mind will be pleased with this new addition.
Overall, Stage Four is Touché Amore at their best. Every song here sees the band playing up their strengths, and the newfound experimentation shows a band willing to push their sound in order to find progression. It's an album full of emotion and a rollercoaster of sorts for the listener. One that is impossible to listen through without being moved in some capacity. One of Touché Amore's greatest strengths has always been their willingness to embrace vulnerability, and this album shows the band at their most intimate. If you're willing to take the journey, Stage Four provides an enthralling listening experience. Although loss lies at the center, acceptance is offered at the end. The album closes with Skyscraper's beautiful elegy to Bolm's mother. A bright send-off that offers closure. Stage Four is definitely a strong contender for album of the year, and may be one of the most important post-hardcore albums to come out in awhile. If you make it all the way through without feeling anything, stop and check your pulse, then listen again.