Review Summary: Reboot the machine.
It seems that from the start, Silversun Pickups have had their eyes on making Widow’s Weeds
a “return-to-roots” album. Those paying close attention took notice when the band parted ways with pop producer Jackknife Lee – who completed Neck of the Woods
and Better Nature
– in favor of Butch Vig, whose achievements include Nirvana’s Nevermind
and Smashing Pumpkins’Gish
. The statement was obvious – they wanted to move away from the shimmering electronics of their last two records and towards something heavier. If that message didn’t hit home at first, then it likely did when the band dropped ‘It Doesn’t Matter Why’ as their lead single; a straightforward rock song aside from that string-laden bridge. And if that didn't do it, then it was all but confirmed when lead vocalist Brian Aubert sang "I need a fresh start now, reboot the machine!" on 'Don't Know Yet.' Bottom line: Silversun Pickups made damn sure you knew this was coming. Despite the continued commercial success of their past couple releases, it’s still their first two – Carnavas
– that are by and large considered fan favorites. Widow’s Weeds
seeks to recapture an element of that sound, but its pursuit of past glory is met with mixed results.
aims for a dryer, crunchier alt-rock aesthetic, yet one can’t help but notice that Vig overcorrects. Even when Silversun Pickups rocked out at their hardest, circa ‘Panic Switch’, there was always a smooth, shoegazy sheen that made their songs feel transcendent. Such an effect is difficult to find here. Whereas Better Nature
was vibrant and colorful at every turn – from the incorporation of electronics to female vocals – Widow’s Weeds
sounds comparatively dull. Instruments seem to be competing against each other in loudness wars, whereas Lee’s mixing on Neck of the Woods
and Better Nature
– while admittedly on the poppier side – managed to bring out the best elements of Silversun Pickups’ sound while locating the sweet spot between Brian Aubert’s shrill, wispy vocals and the band’s instrumental melodies. Perhaps this is just proof that no one will get it exactly right like Dave Cooley did on the group’s first two albums, but when comparing Lee’s sleek, shimmering pop-rock to Vig’s desiccated, straightedge “rock”, it’s clear that Silversun Pickups took a noticeable step back sonically.
However, Vig isn’t entirely to blame. The band needlessly restrains itself on multiple occasions, robbing listeners of some potentially superb songs. One doesn’t need to look any further than ‘Straw Man’, where we witness Silversun Pickups take an inherently great rock track and turn it into one that’s merely good
. Aubert delivers one of his best vocal performances alongside a melody that’s perfectly scripted to become a massive hit, and the sporadic, rapid-fire electric guitar chords (combined with thumping drum beats) pack a punch that much of Widow’s Weeds
sorely lacks. Unfortunately, that’s before the second half of the song drowns itself in strings that are weirdly low in the mix, especially to be the selling point or culmination of a heavy rock hitter. Then, to a serenade of fading acoustic plucks, ‘Straw Man’ fizzles out three minutes after posturing itself to absolutely erupt
. Considering how easily they could have placed a complex guitar solo or breakdown at the end of that build-up, the whole thing feels more than just anti-climactic: it’s an outright letdown. It would be easy to blame this on a lack of invigoration from the studio, but sadly, the song just lacks creative direction – a burden that falls squarely on the bandmates themselves. ‘Straw Man’ is still the best song on the album, but it should have been much, much
better; a microcosm of Widow’s Weeds
Strange production issues and the occasional lack of creative impetus aside, the record weighs in as another solid offering from Silversun Pickups. The band finds its groove on singles ‘It Doesn’t Matter Why’ and ‘Freakazoid’ – both highly enjoyable if explicitly unremarkable. The album’s second half is expressly better than the first and features the majority of its lengthier tracks, which is where Silversun Pickups have the most space to conduct the sort of slow build-ups that they’re renowned for. The title track is a melodic goldmine, lazily swaying to warm acoustics that eventually give way to crisp electric riffs with more of a defined progression. Aubert’s voice hovers above the lush instrumental framework, sounding almost angelic. ‘Songbirds’ is this album’s ‘Skin Graph’, sharing a very similar overall progression as well as gorgeous contrast between lavish, melodramatic mini-choruses and heavier riff/drum interchanges that feel like breakdowns on the heels of each sugary refrain. The most intriguing moment on Widow’s Weeds
’ back half is undoubtedly its closer, ‘We Are Chameleons’, which bubbles with the kind of experimental energy that is sparse across the other nine tracks. With a frizzy electronic introduction, distorted riffs throughout, and an unnerving detuned guitar outro, ‘We Are Chameleons’ is the closest Silversun Pickups have sounded to their Swoon
heyday in quite some time. Ironically, the earworm melodies that are otherwise omnipresent on Widow’s Weeds
are conspicuously absent here; a masterstroke of bad timing when you consider that the song possesses everything else it needs – from its rich arsenal of ideas to its bold fervor for execution. All it needs is a sweet, addicting melody to tie it all together, but the band comes up empty-handed. It’s yet another case of this album nearly reaching its potential, but just lacking one critical component. Still, it’s miles ahead of the record’s worst effort – the lyrically and instrumentally repetitive ‘Bag of Bones’ – which serves as Widow’s Weeds
’ only abject failure.
Silversun Pickups’ fifth full-length sees the band craft another very enjoyable alt-rock album, but it’s one that is full of holes. For every catchy melody, they seem to abandon their creative spirit. When they aspire for the stars artistically, they can’t seem to locate their tune sense. It’s almost comedic, because they might have just transposed some of these traits from one song to another and ended up with five masterpieces instead of nine or so “decent” songs. Of course it doesn’t work that way, but it’s a shame because Widow’s Weeds
contains some of the band’s very best ideas – they’re just scattered in such a way that they’re never given a chance to assume form. Held back by that and Vig’s oft-inability to draw this band’s magic to the surface, Widow’s Weeds
may just be the worst Silversun Pickups album to date. It’s saying something that this is still an album worth frequenting; a testament to the talent that bursts from the seams of everything that this band creates. Consider this a rare valley in a career that has been comprised mostly of peaks.