Review Summary: A jumbled mess, if occasionally a glorious one
When I first heard that Heartless Bastards would be releasing the band’s long-awaited sixth full-length, I was quite excited, a reaction which was diminished almost immediately by the absurd garishness of the album artwork. My hopes rested firmly on the band’s most recent record, 2015’s Restless Ones
, a flawed but beautiful album which has stood the test of time quite well for this reviewer (in other words, don’t believe the record’s shamefully low Sputnik average). Even as much of the band’s previous (largely acclaimed) works have proved middling to my ears, Restless Ones
was a release which fits a niche nothing else quite does, and also an album containing one of my all-time favorite songs (“Hi-Line”, for those taking notes). My instant aversion to the cover for A Beautiful Life
therefore was not just due to its more-or-less objective ridiculousness, but also because the style of the artwork differed so drastically from that of Restless Ones
as to suggest a dramatic (musical) change in form. In this perception I wasn’t wrong, as the group’s newest effort sees the band move to substantially new territory, leaving an uneven product which will likely prove polarizing.
The album’s sound is essentially a stool held up by three legs, one comprised of vaguely 60s-inspired psychedelia (bolstered by hippie vibes), another representing art pop similar to Angel Olsen or Sharon Van Etten’s recent output, and the third of more or less standard Heartless Bastards’ fare (bluesy or countryish rock tunes). In many songs, two or even all three of these strands make an appearance. While theoretically, this amalgam might be great (and indeed, some listeners may find it to be so), the results end up being a bit of a fiasco for this reviewer, damned by a focus on lyrics which don’t hold up and sonic landscapes which feel a bit suspended in limbo between multiple styles.
Opener “Revolution” effectively functions as a microcosm of the album as a whole, with a mix of cringiness and enjoyable music. Featuring earnest socio-political lyrics like “there was a time when false information wasn’t so rampant in the sphere”, the middle of the song includes a string of commentary (almost painfully) reminiscent of the Bob Dylan classic “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding”). While well-intentioned, it’s not 1965 anymore and much of this feels labored. However, the song is nearly redeemed by a well-executed swell and guitar solo near the end.
The following song, “How Low”, seems to operate under the assumption that the only thing wrong with “Revolution” was that it featured too little
inane societal analysis, but for all that it also has a fairly irresistible dancy groove. After the first two tunes, the political focus fades away a bit (fortunate for this listener), making way for a run of smooth art pop tunes. The real winner among the first bunch of songs is the title track, the first (and arguably only) true stunner on this record, an effervescent and sleek number which makes prime use of Erika Wennerstrom’s exceptional vocal talents. This is followed-up by “The River”, which is musically very strong but diminished by exceptionally bland lyrics (as mentioned, a bit of theme here). Second half tune “Photograph” iis arguably the closest A Beautiful Life
gets to the sound Heartless Bastards pursued on Restless Ones
, albeit poppier and more streamlined. Finally, “The Thinker”, as the album’s closer, manages to encapsulate the frustration of this record. With a minimalistic, folky sound, the tune just works better than most of its more musically adventurous counterparts, despite its bargain-bin philosophy lyrics, leaving the listener to wonder if a different stylistic approach on this album wouldn’t have been far more effective.
A Beautiful Life
isn’t a bad album. Besides the fact that there are several great songs present (with the blissful title track as the headliner), at its core there’s potential for this lush and airy rendition of Heartless Bastards, anchored by the mellow vibe and wonderful vocals which have long been the band’s strengths. However, this record runs into a brick wall on multiple fronts, as it suffers a bit of an identity crisis and the lyrical subject matter is far too cliche to carry the tunes. This is a forgettable effort, but one that avoids abject disaster and leaves me hoping that it is a transitional piece before Heartless Bastards move on to a more successful new era in their trajectory.