Review Summary: In which a devout Christian with marriage issues and ongoing battles with mental health writes a nearly flawless pop record.
Writing upbeat, catchy pop music with dark lyrics is not anything new or even that original. Facebook videos with compilations of this style are a dime a dozen. “Hey Ya!” can’t play at a party nowadays without someone saying, “But have you ever actually listened to the lyrics"” Everyone becomes a music theorist when it comes to pointing out the cognitive dissonance of an upbeat melody with downtrodden lyrics.
To be fair, that’s often because when those two factors are combined well, it’s impressive. On When We Were In Love
, Mike Mains and the Branches definitely take this idea and run with it successfully, all while still incorporating their own unique sound of hope.
The majority of songs on When We Were In Love
were written during a rough patch in Mains’ marriage to band member Shannon Mains. Also not a stranger to a number of mental health issues that have followed him throughout his life, When We Were In Love
is a deeply personal record for Mains. It is also a record that is larger than life in its indie-pop/rock sound.
Shimmering synth, strong vocals, and endless energy are all constants throughout the album, starting off with opener “Pouring Rain”, which has Mains’ powerful tenor at the forefront. The opener is a straight pop song and also a true love song. Even though Mike and Shannon Mains’ have gone and are going through their fair share of marriage issues, the songs they perform about each other also show that they have the kind of relationship people strive for. Even as the lyrical themes begin to darken as the album continues, the joy contained in “Pouring Rain” rarely wavers.
The infectious power pop of the album is also consistently found in every single song. “Endless Summer” grows into a warm weather anthem with the most effective key change found this side of Broadway, “Holy Ghost” has driving percussion leading the song along and finds Mains taking a more aggressive vocal presence, and “Renegades” has lyrics describing the nostalgia of living in a small town that would make country-pop jealous, although again with a darker undertone that describes the specific difficulties of their childhood story. Every single song also has an incredibly effective chorus that is memorable in it’s own right. There’s no sign of filler to be found across the album’s 11 tracks.
However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t clear highlights on the album. “Around the Corner” is a full on anthem of the hope that often has to come with living with mental illness, no matter how difficult it may be to maintain. While the lyrics of the song aren’t necessarily anything new, they are delivered with such earnestness that they still feel entirely fresh. Following this song, there comes “Breathing Underwater”, which is not quite as full of hope. It’s a blunt look at not only what living with mental illness is like, but what living with someone with a mental illness is like. Featuring the strongest beats on the album and the most varied vocal performance, the song culminates in an impassioned Mains singing out “I’m standing with roses in the rain”, with the listener hearing the pain in his delivery.
Closer “Swamp” features the songwriting debut of band member and wife of Mike, Shannon Mains. The optimism and hope fades a bit with the closer. It serves as an acknowledgment of the life struggles that will continue, no matter the hope or spirituality they rely on. The chorus of the song asks “Do you remember when we were in love"”; it doesn’t hide the fact that everything still isn’t perfect on all fronts, grounding both the album and listener in a harsher reality.
In interviews leading up to the release of When We Were In Love
, Mike Mains frequently quoted this old Tom Waits quote: I love beautiful melodies telling me terrible things
. Mike Mains and the Branches have practically mastered this idea in a way that will have you singing along for days. Some listens you may be beaming ear to ear with feelings of optimism, while other listens may build walls of dread; both listening experiences will be equally rewarding.