Review Summary: While unable (and unwilling) to return to the explosive heights of their early albums, La Dispute return with a beautifully arranged offering that proves to be their most vulnerable and honest yet.
When you have relatively tragedy free life, how can you hope to console those who are in mourning" This is the central question of Panorama, the long-awaited fourth full-length LP by Grand Rapids post-hardcore outfit La Dispute, a band who have long obsessed with concepts such as mental illness, grief, and loss (of love and life). While La Dispute have in the past released concept albums broken down by songs that read more like short stories, often serving as re-tellings of stories vocalist/lyricist Jordan Dreyer has heard from others in his neighborhood or as entirely fabricated narratives, Panorama offers something much more personal than reimaginings of a neighborhood shooting or Annabel Lee.
After a brief ambient opening, the first two proper songs are titled "Fulton Street I" and "Fulton Street II," named after a major road in Grand Rapids, MI and inspired by a drive Jordan Dryer took with his significant other to the nearby town of Lowell. The former song invokes imagery of makeshift roadside monuments dedicated to those whom were killed in car accidents. The narrative suggests Dreyer's partner has experienced loss ("If I could just try, could I banish all the pain in you" Give you everything you need..."), though he hasn't gone through the same tragedies and wonders if he can appropriately console her when she is grief-stricken ("Will I ever put flowers by the street" Never needed to live and suffer through the pain, all the tyrannies of grief; if I ever do, will I even have the strength to do anything""). At the end of the song, Dreyer vows to be his partner's rock ("If you need me to be anything, I could be everything you need"), a sentiment that is central to the latter song ("Go--if the water swells, drags you under, know I will swallow it whole and carry all the pain away"). These songs set the tone for the rest of the album.
The next track, "Rhodonite and Grief," explores Dreyer making attempts to comfort his partner whilst she is overcome with grief, going over the continuous cycles daily ("Rhodonite for stress/promethazine for sleep/a rabbit toy for kids/my deep condolences") and yearly ("Winter, we huddle in anger; spring, sadness sinking in/summer, accept all departures; in autumn, start again"). The reference to the mineral rhodonite is one of a handful regarding various minerals and gemstones throughout the album. Though Dreyer has stated he doesn't necessarily believe in healing crystals, he nonetheless thought it was an interesting symbol for this writing cycle; it's a perfect metaphor for wanting to be someone's source of comfort (or should I say, their rock. No" Sorry) but actually not having anything to offer. "Anxiety Panorama" discusses Dreyer's struggling attempts to walk a fine line between offering sympathy and being overbearing, not knowing when or how to do so properly and seemingly creating conflict in their relationship. This apparent conflict sets a theme for the next few songs, leading up to the track "There You Are (Hiding Place)," which discusses the aforementioned strife coinciding with Jordan feeling stuck in a rut of his uneventful as of recent life, and a promise to change their scenery so they may reconcile their issues and co-exist moving forward. It is here where we reach the closer "You, Ascendant," which, as previous La Dispute closing tracks have done so well, brings the themes and narrative full circle. In the first part of the song, Dreyer describes his partner visiting the scene of a lost loved one (referenced on "Fulton Street I"), trying to come to terms with her sorrow. Watching this scene causes Dryer to spend the middle section contemplating their own mortality, predicting many scenes that he knows are whimsical pleading when he knows there may well come a time when he must live without her, or her without him. The song closes with Dreyer reaffirming his vow to be everything she needs him to be.
On the musical side of things, Panorama is not merely a natural continuation of the different directions La Dispute has gone through over the years, but may prove to be the spark of their evolution moving forward. Since the release of Somewhere at the Bottom of the River Between Vega and Altair, the band has gotten tamer with each release (and Somewhere... was even tamer yet than their debut EP Vancouver). While Wildlife was still largely rooted in post-hardcore, their album prior to this one, Rooms of the House, gave their sound a big dose of indie rock, resulting in something more stripped down but still abrasive to an extant. Panorama takes the band in a new direction. There is a lot of ambience and space between notes, tempering the band's post-hardcore tendencies with brightly colored textures. The tracks "Fulton Street I," "Northern Michigan," "There You Are," and "You, Ascendant" combine dynamic switches between quiet, spoken word sections and ones with Dreyer's classic shouts set to loud, atmospheric guitars that indicate post-rock influence alongside the usual post-hardcore. "Fulton Street II" and "View from Our Bedroom Window" are more reminiscent of the style found on Rooms of the House, the latter opening with shimmering guitars and a walking bassline which leads into a pretty guitar line in the verses. Comparatively harder hitting songs like "Anxiety Panorama" and "Footsteps at the Pond" are still more subdued than the band's past work, still incorporating spoken word vocals and clean, melodic guitar work. Jordan Dreyer makes more use of spoken word than he ever has (sans the Here, Hear EP series), and his harsh vocals respectively are suppressed to mesh with the band that is tastefully treading into post-hardcore realms rather than living in it. The most left-of-center song is probably "Rhodonite and Grief," which features horns in its middle section to complement the jazzy chords and rhythms.
The album's production occasionally buries Dreyer's vocals in the mix, a curious route for a band that has in the past leaned so heavily on him. While Somewhere... puts both the instrumentation and vocals in your face at all times, Wildlife's mix hegemonizes Dreyer's presence over the rest of the band (to which I would defend as the lyrics are a strong driving factor in the band), whereas Rooms of the House sees a relatively stripped back sound. Panorama, however, allows the music to be at the forefront, setting a vivid mood. I do not find it to be a detriment to the songs, as the awash vocals are still easily decipherable. Rather than putting the vocals in the forefront and make you notice them, you have to listen for them, allowing the songs and the listener not to rely too heavily on Dreyer; the lyrics are good enough to carry themselves.
Some fans might finish Panorama and be left wanting. It certainly does not spoonfeed the audience in the same way the first two albums did; rather it is demanding of the listener to soak in the atmospheres and the spoken word verses. On one hand, this might make Panorama a less exciting release compared to Somewhere... or Wildlife. On the other hand, I feel the band successfully removes any sense of gimmick, which allows for a sense of appreciation. It's a demanding album, but not too challenging, and I find it to be more rewarding than Rooms of the House, which I found to be good but left some room to be desired in context of following up their early albums. Rather than trying to reach heights from those first two albums which may never again be regained (at least not in the same manner), La Dispute chooses to sprawl outward and explore new sounds.