Review Summary: Thunderclouds and fog lights: O'Brother ebb and flow
A strange thing happened yesterday. O’Brother spontaneously released a new album with a very forgiving price tag and a modest amount of hype, courtesy of two impressive singles. I speed dialled PayPal, locked the album into my library, and listened through several times, frowning pensively yet positively all the while. Rising out of a slew of other, not insignificant reactions, a tentative conclusion emerged. I brushed it aside, only to find it reassert itself with a vengeance; no amount of suspension of disbelief could gaslight it out of my awareness. Conceding defeat, I did the unimaginable when the album ended: I opened its metadata panel, deleted whichever of post-hardcore and post-rock had won my coin toss for placeholder genre, took a deep breath, and typed out a dirty word evocative of all manner of stylistic postulation, overblown lyricism, insufferable earnestness and perplexing aversion to grit:
O’Brother have made a bona fide Alternative album.
You and I
doesn’t so much replace the band’s distinctive fire-and-brimstone approach to surging dynamics and ethereal atmospheres as much as it reequips them with new levels of nuance and articulation; the scope of their sound finds itself broadened considerably. Slurs and snideness aside, this album shows a great development without tending towards too many of alt-rock’s pitfalls. The band make predominantly good work of it, and it’s a relief to hear it from them of all people: as O’Brother’s first full-on alternative album, You and I
is remarkable not so much for being ‘full-on alternative’ as much as for how O’Brother haven’t had a first anything
in quite some time. They started out at a time when combining the vaguest of Thrice-isms with the faintest whiff of post-rock was a high fetish for anyone fond of presenting their taste in rock music in colourful terms. For all the band have been respectably creative from album to album, none of their records ever seemed to acknowledge that clutching onto this appeal was tantamount to living on borrowed time. Four years on from the impressive but overrefined Endless Light
, they have clocked (rightly) that the world of rock fans are getting as many diminishing returns on this sound as the band themselves. A well-gauged departure is on hand: so long Thrice, hello Radiohead!
Needless to say, You and I
sounds no more like Radiohead than it does, say, Foxing, Gazpacho or Nine Inch Nails, but you know how this game works. In any case, its revisions to the band’s formula are apparent from the get-go; pseudo-opener “Soma” presents a threatening slow-burner that sounds distinctly O’Brother in its starchy minor-key trudge and vocalist Tanner Merrit’s trademark eerie harmonies, yet starkly different in how it substitutes the band’s crunchy guitars and thunderous bass for ominous piano arpeggios, constantly evolving drumbeats and peripheral countermelodies (also piano). These are the album’s bread and butter; the band’s guitars are relegated to the supporting rhythm section and brought in only when their inclusion feels entirely unavoidable. ‘Stripped back’ is the wrong way to put it; every part of the arrangement plays as forceful a role as with the distortion-friendly O’Brother of yesteryear, and when guitars do crop up in the tail-end, they feel more like a natural extension of the piano theme than an outright upgrade.
However, both O’Brother’s approach to dynamics and their choice of instrumentation have changed significantly enough that many may raise their eyebrows at the relative lack of straight-up oomph
on show here. This is not an outright criticism and it is certainly not unfortunate; the core of the band’s sound is the same as ever even if their palette has clearly changed. The album is full of stakes and momentum, but they come in a foreboding ebb-and-flow rather than colossal moments of release. To this end, it helps to fall back on visual metaphors. Analysing albums by nature of their artwork is usually a hotbed for pedestrian eye-rollers (apologies, everyone who wrote on LP3
last year), but in this case there’s something to said for how O’Brother’s traditionally earthy shading has been subsumed into an aqueous swirl. Put in the lazy terms of classical elements, You and I
is clearly a water album. Put in the considerably more helpful terms of Pokemon, it’s a Greninja: defined primarily as a water-type but with obvious elements of darkness and a flair for dipping into areas beyond its immediate scope.
“Black Tide” demonstrates this latter quality perfectly, opting for a sharp turn into industrial territory with an atmosphere unnerving as the ocean churning under slow-moving foglights. It’s more or less unprecedented within the band’s discography and makes for one of the boldest and most engaging tracks on the album. Notably, the song culminates in a surging climax that sees many classic O’Brother-isms return to the fray. This climax is at once a moment of relief and reorientation, grounding the song in more familiar ground, and a vindication of the preceding minutes’ departure; the threads of something new being tied together with something old is, after all, a sure sign of mutual compatibility. “Locus” is another interesting departure for how it sees the band inverting the traditional definition of post-rock (rock music repurposed for non-rock ends). On the one hand, this track is the most reminiscent of O’Brother as a climactic rock band in its pacing and dynamics, overtly striving for the kind of towering climax they built their name on; on the other hand, it’s one of the the most reticent tracks to present this structure in anything approaching the language of their staple tracks; Anton Dang’s bass crashes in for the climax, but otherwise this is one of the most rock-shy ensembles you could hope to hear on an overtly rock track. “Killing Spree” is underpinned by a similar ethos, with its delicate harp and, later, string accents flitting in and out of an arrangement breathtakingly mobile by the band’s robust standards.
Inevitably, not all of O’Brother’s twists and turns play out to perfection. This is hardly surprising when a band changes so much so quickly; not every track can be expected to work as convincingly as, say, the gorgeous Gazpacho-esque “What We’ve Lost.” For instance, “Only Other” reaches for similar acoustic arpeggios but misgauges its mood and pacing somewhat, lacking the focused undercurrent of other tracks and missing its footing with a few misplaced f-bombs in its chorus. “Spill On The Carpet” falls into a similar pitfall; it’s a perfectly adequate way to spend four minutes feeling vaguely paranoid, but I cannot for the life of me pinpoint any specifics concerning its internal momentum or role in the album’s sequencing. The album as a whole is impacted by a general sense of pacing and contour; although brief flashpoints work very successfully within individual songs, overall package holds a considerable amount of weight and intensity but feels a little short of outright thunder. “Leave Me Out” is an apt reflection of this; it’s excellent as a doomy final act, but its haunting trudge and stark bleakness feel like they should read as a moment of grim realisation in the face of a damage report; as it is, they play out in the wake of a tightly crafted stormcloud that remains largely unburst.
While this sense of slightly misgauged momentum does somewhat put the brakes on You and I
’s obvious wealth of potential, this is in many ways an extremely healthy sign for O’Brother. This is easily their most sophisticated work to date, and for the first time in almost ten years the possibility of the band refining their sound on future albums seems to open doors rather than close them. It’s not quite a triumphant raising of standards, but You and I
follows on proudly from an exemplary run of albums and brings a fresh breath of wind to the band’s sails. What they can eke out of this sound in years to come remains to be seen; in the meantime, returning fans will find You and I
more than impressive enough to tide them over.