Review Summary: I can make a mess like nobody's business
Ace Enders is one of the industry's greatest songwriters, when he can just get out of his own way. From whiny 2000s pop-punk to albums which flit through electronic-tinged pop, indie, lo-fi ballads and rockers without missing a step - not to mention the spoken word/pop-punk/alt-country triple concept album he dropped on the way, surely the most ambitious 2000s project in this genre that no one seems to talk about. Enders can seemingly write a classic album in his sleep, but getting them out to the public is another matter. Whether that's all the promised tracks that never eventuated, songs confusingly re-recorded three or four times across the already unclear lines between The Early November, I Can Make a Mess... and his solo material, or in Lilac
's case, delays and strange production choices which contribute to a feeling of incompleteness. Lilac
began as a dark record about a family member's addiction before Enders pushed it back to apply a lighter touch; even if you don't know this specific piece of backstory, it's not hard to identify the result in the finished album, a confused and confusing piece of work which pulls itself (and the listener) in disparate directions.
Before that happens there are some honest-to-god Enders classics here, songs which see him take the effervescent melodies of "Close to You" or "Harmony" into the territory of outright indie pop, a pool he's been on the edge of for some time without fully diving in. "Perfect Sphere (Bubble)" is proof positive of the man's generational talent with a melody, especially in taking a concept that brushes up against silliness and grounding it inside an utterly gorgeous arrangement. "Ave Maria" is a late addition to the album, one which sticks out somewhat amongst the melancholy concept songs, but it's also utter pop perfection in three minutes and change. Of what remains of the original album, the closing two songs stand as deeply moving pieces which hit upon some of the realest shit Enders has written. "Our Choice" is a terrific climactic moment, an emotional epic which stands shoulder-to-shoulder with cuts like "I Don't Care" and "A Bigger Meaning", while the album reaches its denouement with "The Lilac", a heartrending lo-fi ballad which claustrophobically places the listener directly in the headspace of the person suffering from addiction: "The needle in my hand is coming down... drilling through my chest, but it's oil they found."
But The Early November in all their storied career have never fumbled the opening and closing of an album – The Room's Too Cold
's bookends, in particular, stacking up with the genre's best. Lilac
lives up to that standard, but finds itself losing focus in the middle stretch. Otherwise good songs "Make My Bed" and "You Own My Mind" get bogged down in filler moments, an infuriating whistled bridge and numbingly repetitive hook, respectively. But it's right after "Ave Maria" caps off a stunning first act that Lilac
starts to fall apart. "Hit By a Car (In Euphoria)" is in theory a solid single, a classic slowburn verse exploding into a huge hook in that way Enders has been perfecting since "Decoration"; the issue in practice being the utter messiness of it all, with an ill-fitting rhythm grating against the chorus melody, a clattering acoustic guitar taking up far too much space in the mix, and a truly fucking strange vocoder backing vocal. This is small change compared to the big reveal in "Comatose", which hits after a surprisingly poor verse vocal; this is simply one of the most indifferently mixed hooks imaginable, one which manages to suck all emotion out of the melody and divert all attention to another ridiculous backing vocal. "Fame" is not all that bad in such dubious company, but here you really start to feel the weight of another last-minute pop addition to the album: with a repetitive guitar strum and simplistic thoughts on the industry (as compared to the brilliantly-written and thoughtful conceptual bent of "Digital Age"), the song feels largely like filler. It's a bridge too far when the album really just needs to recover from some of the most undercooked and messy work ever from Enders' pen.
It does recover, but from a songwriter who delivered a comeback as consistent and coherent as In Currents
, it's hard not to feel the spectres of different albums that could have been weighing heavy on Lilac
. You get the sense that Enders has vaults upon vaults of stunning songs in various stages of completion; finishing them is one thing, but chiselling them into an album that rises above the sum of its parts is quite another. In Currents
and The Mother, The Mechanic and The Path
pulled it off beautifully, where Imbue
and The Room's too Cold
came pretty damn close. In this discography, Lilac
goes down with something of a bitter taste, the sting of something truly exceptional just on the periphery that the music hasn't quite grasped. But when your lesser efforts can still cut as clean and deep as Enders can, with a song like "Perfect Sphere" or "The Lilac", that's a sign that sometimes a bunch of great songs is enough.