Review Summary: Thrice's first disappointing album.
I am forever waiting for religious bands to lose their faith.
That might sound a little weird, especially since I listen to plenty of bands that use religious imagery and themes in their music, but I have always been drawn to the ones who are not afraid to express doubt as well. That is one of the things I like most about mewithoutYou. Thrice, as one of my favorite bands, are sort of the white whale for this. Palms
is their tenth album, and Dustin Kensrue has not only never expressed religious doubt in his songs, but in 2013, in his capacity as a member of the now-defunct Mars Hill church, he went so far as to release the most dreaded of musical projects – a Christian worship album.
When Thrice released “The Grey”, I wondered if it had finally happened. Dustin sang that he “had enough of black and white” and would now “lean into the grey.” I wondered if one of the very few problems that I have had with Thrice’s music had been solved. Over the years, a few of their songs have seemed almost preachy in nature. “Digging My Own Grave” comes to mind, as well as “All the World is Mad” and especially “Promises”, wherein Kensrue asks why we never “quake with rage at what we have become”. Really? Quake
with rage? And what’s up with “The Weight”? Are Christians the only people capable of keeping promises? That sort of attitude spoils what is otherwise a really nice love song.
does not deal with a loss of faith like I initially thought when I heard “The Grey”. And that’s okay, I guess, but one of the reasons I look for that is because I think it would provide some unique inspiration for a formerly religious band. And inspiration was lacking a little bit when Thrice wrote and recorded this record. There is a video on Youtube that shows Dustin and Teppei describing each song track-by-track, and there are moments where they genuinely can’t think of interesting things to say about a few of the songs. I found myself trying to imagine the band writing liner notes for each song like they did with Vheissu
, The Alchemy Index
EPs, and Beggars
. I’m not sure it would be possible, especially if the most interesting tidbit they could come up with is that Ed Breckenridge used a bass clarinet for one of the tracks.
, despite all I’ve said so far, is not a bad album. But it is
disappointing, and I’ve never really felt that way about a Thrice record before. Kensrue has discarded some of his more pointed religious lyrics in favor of generalities and vague maxims. At this point, I’m not sure which of those I’d prefer. Every line in “My Soul” is a question, but they are so generic that nothing unique is done with a potentially exciting lyrical conceit. Remember when this guy used to write sonnets? The music doesn’t do the song any favors either; the only parts that stand out are when Ed’s upright bass comes to the mix’s forefront. In fact, he is the album’s MVP. While always a great bass player – actually, scratch that, one of the best
post-hardcore bass players – he faded into the background a little bit on To be Everywhere is to be Nowhere
, choosing to lock into a groove with his brother Riley instead of standing out as he had on past albums. But he has several bass lines on Palms
that stand gloriously unaccompanied in at least half the songs.
Interestingly, one of the tracks in which he is most prominent ends up being the most disappointing. There has been a lot of pre-release buzz about “A Branch in the River”, mostly because it brings a little bit of aggression to the record. Ed’s bass lines are the best part of the song, but the chorus can’t live up to the verses, especially in Dustin’s vocals. Although they are multi-tracked to hell and back, they simply lack power. The opposite happens in “Hold Up a Light”, which features a vocal performance that is very powerful indeed (especially in the pre-chorus line), but in general, the song is just the sort of boring alt-rock that the band has been falsely accused of making for their last several albums (although this particular song borders on Nickelback-like butt-rock). And I could tolerate that, maybe, if it wasn’t for the bridge, which is undoubtedly one of the worst things that they have ever written. Throughout, Ed’s bass once again stands out, and it is here that I noticed just what was happening. His bass is so noticeable because they have regressed into an alt-rock standard, writing quiet verses accompanied by bass and drums, and then letting the guitars come in for the choruses to give the songs life. The thing is, Ed is such a talented bass player that it seems at first like the band is subverting that trope, but repeated listens put the lie to that thought.
Not that alt-rock is inherently bad. In the past, Thrice have actually been very good at writing catchy rock music despite all the criticism it has brought them from long-time fans. That trend continues here, especially in the three pre-release songs – “The Grey”, “Only Us”, and “The Dark”. The latter features the voices of over 1,000 Thrice fans who recorded themselves singing the song’s last line. Dustin has stated with pride that every person that submitted a recording made it into the mix, which is sort of funny when you realize that it sounds as if only 10 or so people are on the song. Still, the melody is very pretty, and the song has a spell-binding, spacy atmosphere that I haven’t heard since The Alchemy Index
(the same could be said of "Just Breathe"). “Only Us” has garnered many Stranger Things
comparisons for its synth intro, but Dustin’s lyrics stand out more than anything else. His newfound penchant for lyrical simplicity works well for an important message that might sound trite in any other political climate. Here and now, it sounds vital. And “The Grey” is one of the catchiest songs they have ever written. At times, it is genuinely thrilling, like in the musical break before the last chorus, where Dustin pushes his singing far enough to recapture some of the gruff power he had on Vheissu
’s heavier songs.
All of this brings me to a question for which I don’t seem to have an answer: what do I want from a Thrice album? I have been happy with their experimentation as well as the more straightforward songwriting they have engaged in since Beggars
. But they were never a band to stick with the same style for long, and I wonder if they have taken this rock sound as far as they can. I’m not sure that adding a harp to a song changes that. Still, there are some magical moments throughout Palms
. I haven’t even mentioned “Blood on Blood” and “Beyond the Pines”, which are two of the best songs here. But even then, the former leans a little too heavily on that weird vibrato that Dustin does with his voice nowadays, and the latter has an absolutely infuriating minute of near-silence at the end. In the aforementioned interview, Dustin said the purpose of that moment was so the listener could take time to reflect on the album. “We don’t have enough of those moments,” he said, but all I hear is a wasted opportunity for the music to come back in. Thrice are still capable of great things. They demonstrate that many times on this record. But I realize now that I might be the one losing my faith.