Anberlin – New Surrender: A defiant resistance, or are they waving the white flag?

2008_Anberlin_NewSurrenderArtist: Anberlin
Album: New Surrender
Year: 2008
Grade: B-

In Brief: Pretty good for a mainstream debut… worth picking up and a good introduction to the band. But Cities was an order of magnitude better.


It can be tough to watch one of your favorite bands “go mainstream”. I’m sure you know the drill by now – a group spends a number of years cultivating love and respect from fans in a “niche” or the “underground” or whatever you want to call it, and you think they’re one of your personal “best kept secrets”, and you kinda wish more people knew about them, and then you realize they’ve generated a bit more buzz than you previously knew about. Then along it comes: The mainstream record deal. This is the moment where you want to be proud of the band for their hard work paying off and finally getting a big name to back them. But it comes with much trepidation. Scenesters will inevitably cry “sellout” the moment the news breaks. The first radio single might not represent what you know to be the band’s strengths. But you try to withhold judgment until the album drops, because after all, not everything “mainstream” is inherently bad, right?

Well, it’s Anberlin‘s turn at bat now. After releasing three albums for Tooth & Nail Records that sounded pretty mainstream-friendly to my ears all along (but while maintaining a certain edge and lyrical intrigue), they’ve signed to Universal South and turned out a new album in record time, with this year’s New Surrender coming about a year and a half after 2007’s excellent Cities. Part of me didn’t even realize that the group hadn’t already “debuted” in the world of mainstream rock – Cities was the kind of album that seemed built to expose the band to a much bigger audience than they had previously enjoyed. They snuck up on me, going from a pretty good straight-ahead modern rock band with tinges of 80’s influence, who I enjoyed despite the fact that their second album was essentially another round of the same stuff that worked well on their first, to a rather unstoppable force, firing on all cylinders on Cities, finally persuading me to give them that elusive 5-star rating. To me, they’re one of those bands that has managed to show vast improvement while not really messing with their successful formula too much. It’s easy to take a new Anberlin song and trace it back to an older Anberlin song that it kind of resembles, but more often than not, I find myself realizing that the new one kicks the old one’s butt.

So, after their third album, I kind of figured these guys had already arrived. They had a slick, extremely catchy, in-your-face power pop sort of sound, they could get a chorus stuck in your head despite their lyrics being somewhat dense and tricky to navigate, and they could do the occasional ballad in ways that incorporated new musical ideas into the group’s repertoire and didn’t sound cliched even if they were just sweet little love songs. This was a band that could afford to change absolutely nothing and probably still have a stellar mainstream breakthrough.

And then they went and gave us New Surrender. Which isn’t a bad album – but it’s not the kind of record you want to announce yourself to the world at large with. I like it and all. The same hallmarks are there – seething, aggressive opener to give you a shot of adrenaline, a couple of bouncy breakup songs, plenty of zig-zagging guitar riffs, and even a finale that stretches out to epic proportions. But it feels like they scaled something back on this record – despite playing around with keyboards and the occasional hint of exotic instrumentation here and there, it feels like the “pop monster” got a hold of them and took some of the edge off. Anberlin’s already been poppy, even in some of their most aggressive moments – I get that and I never had a problem with that. But for some reason, the songs just aren’t taking hold as quickly this time. It feels more calculated than Cities. They’re a tight enough band to sound good playing anywhere along the spectrum from hard rock to tender balladry, and they’ve certainly learned how to distinguish one song from another since the days of Blueprints for the Black Market. But I still can’t bring myself to consider New Surrender a better album than any of their previous ones.

It’s tough to explain the differences between this album and past ones without going into the specific songs… so I’ll dive in and do my best to make some sense of it.

INDIVIDUAL TRACKS:

1. The Resistance
Ignite and watch us burn
Til every embers turn
My God, we’ll feel inspired
When we set your walls to fire…
The epic intro to this album gives drummer Nathan Young the chance to be the hero for a little bit, as he unleashes a fierce, snare drum-heavy, military march sort of cadence that ensures we’ve got a highly memorable rocker on our hands. Normally this band’s heavier tunes are defined by Joey Milligan‘s agile guitar riffing, and he’s doing plenty of that here, but it’s the drums and Stephen Christian‘s go-for-the-jugular vocals that really grab my attention. His fervor reaches a boiling point as he threatens an oppressive force with the promise of an impending revolution, snarling “Speak for yourselves, you paper tigers!” in a hard-hitting chorus. If you know Anberlin, this sort of thing is almost expected of them by now, but that’s doesn’t make it any less impressive of a thrust right out of the starting gate.

2. Breaking
Do you collect the souls you’ve lost
In the top of your dresser drawer
Count the number of tears displaced
On lonely bedroom floors…
Isn’t it a little early for the mid-tempo romantic stuff? That was my first reaction to this song’s decidedly mellower guitar-and-piano intro, but it takes off at a rather brisk pace not too far in, turning out to be another solid entry in Anberlin’s time-honored tradition about girls who led them on. The rhythm of the chorus reminds me quite a bit of “Adelaide” from the last album, just slightly less in-your-face with the drums and vocal melodies. It’s still every bit as addictive and singable as the chorus keeps cascading upon itself, with its repeated accusation, “You make breaking hearts look so easy; you’ve got stealing hearts all but down”, with Stephen overlapping himself to observe that “You’ve done this before.”

3. Blame Me! Blame Me!
Torturing ourselves
We must be into the abuse
If you’re the rope that ties us together…
Musically, I find it difficult to describe this track – at least, in a way that makes it stand out from other Anberlin songs. It’s a solid performance with its siren-like guitar intro and its almost danceable, momentum-heavy pace (thanks again to Nathan’s frenetic drumming), but the overly bouncy melody makes it resemble some of the poppier tracks from Never Take Friendship Personal that I was never as much of a fan of – “The Runaways” and “Stationary Stationery” and so forth. Some good stuff’s being said here on the subject of self-abuse and blaming others for problems you’re not mature enough to point the finger at yourself for. The bridge develops alittle bit more attitude that gives the song a small boost. I think my problem mostly lies in the chorus, during which the words “Blame me, blame me, blame me” and “Hate me, hate me, hate me” fly by so fast that they’re almost mushed together. It doesn’t seem to fit the angry, pointed nature of the song – it’s too breezy.

4. Retrace
Oh, how I find every subtle thing screams your name
It reminds me of places and times we’ve shared
Couldn’t live locked in these memories
Now I’m chained to my thoughts again…
For some reason, when Anberlin goes more poppy than rocky, I tend to prefer them at more relaxed tempos. That might just be because it’s difficult for me to tell some of their “less chunky” up-tempo tunes apart, but they do few enough “ballads” that they tend to really stand out. This one’s no exception, taking its cue from the watery electric guitar textures of “(The Symphony of) Blase” and “The Unwinding Cable Car”, both standout cuts on previous albums, and working up a unique structure for this new creation that involves a stuttering, delicate guitar melody, some complex drum and bass parts (Deon Rexroat is really good about not offering the traditional “straight” bass line on this one), and even the help of a string section. This one’s about a latent image of a person that gets left behind after a breakup, and the desire to relive or at least reminisce about the good stuff despite knowing you’re better off without the person. It certainly has that “Romantic but sad” tone to it that this band does so well.

5. Feel Good Drag
Everyone in this town
Is seeing somebody else
Everybody’s tired of someone
Our eyes wander for help…
So, I’m kind of getting annoyed with this whole philosophy that bands need to re-record old songs because they never got a chance to be a radio single the first time around. For those of us who don’t really listen to the radio, it kind of takes us out of the moment when listening to a brand new album and finding an old song crammed in there. That said, this formula was responsible for launching Switchfoot‘s “Dare You to Move” into the stratosphere, and that was an older non-single worth believing it, so I can see why Anberlin would place a similar amount of faith in this standout track from Never Take Friendship Personal, a sneering cautionary tale about temptation that refuses to relent from all of its thrashing about and throaty (but still melodic!) shouting. The re-recording done for this album is only really different from the original in minute ways – they gave it a better intro than the original’s very sudden, feedback-heavy opening, Joey beefed up an already wicked guitar solo, they gave the outro a little more lingering dissonance, and… wait, what? We get to the climax, the last line of the bridge where Stephen had originall cried, “You were my greatest failure, discourse your saving song”, and now he’s singing it instead of screaming it? Mistake. The aggressive energy of the song gets knowing fans all pumped for that high-energy moment, and then it gets diluted. Hey, I hope it does well as a single, and it’s still just about the most awesome track on the album if you ignore the fact that it’s old material. But this isn’t a notable improvement over the original.

6. Disappear
Dark lit streets are no place for kids
But it gives us more of a home than you ever did
We’re the silentists left to our own demise
You’re still our last chance to get out of this place alive…
I like the synthesized guitar tones in this one – it has the same sort of flavor as the dark “Reclusion” from Cities. Melodically, it feels more like one of the rockers from the middle section of Blueprints for the Black Market that I couldn’t readily distinguish from one another at first. The somewhat simplistic and despairing lyrics about being “alone” and “left behind” also seem to echo sentiments echoed in Cities‘ “Hello Alone”, so the band might be repeating themselves a bit. All of this is to say, it’s good ear candy and an enjoyable dual guitar workout for Joey Milligan and Christian McAlhaney, but the song doesn’t affect me on any deeper level than that.

7. Breathe
This is surrender
To a wartorn life I’ve lived
Scars and stripes forever
In need of change I can’t resist…
Even when Anberlin does an acoustic ballad, I like the fact that they don’t do the “requisite acoustic ballad”. The song “Inevitable” proved that on the last album, and here they change things up with a rather tricky acoustic picking pattern (Joey is a genius on this instrument as well, and I really love watching him work on the bonus DVD that came with the album, in which the band plays fully acoustic renditions of a few of the new songs), gradually bringing the whole band into the mix for an almost symphonic climax with a light but victorious lead guitar line and some unabashedly anthemic “Whoa-oa” gang vocals. It’s a hopeful song about finding freedom on the other side of a personal war – just feeling the tension and the stress lift off of you and no longer being suffocated by it. It’s uncharacteristically hopeful given Anberlin’s usual melodrama, and I enjoy it for that.

8. Burn Out Brighter (Northern Lights)
Racing towards the heavens, I fell into a pitch black
I’m moments from landing, and I’m shaking like a heart attack…
This song is the album’s biggest misstep – a somewhat half-hearted up-tempo track that doesn’t really crank up the guitars enough to work as a rocker, and that makes the mistake of drawing out the words “Live” and “Die” in its chorus for what amounts to a rather weak, one-note hook, only to be completed by the rather lackluster declaration “I want to live inspired… I want to die for something higher than myself.” It’s basically a Switchfoot song, covering territory already covered ad nauseum by that band, without the quirkiness that makes Switchfoot so endearing. (Seriously, they even have a song called “Burn Out Bright”. It’s a bit too close for comfort.) This one doesn’t have that usual “Anberlin edge” to it – truthfully, nothing in the back half of this album does until we’re about halfway into the final song.

9. Younglife
Hey lover, do you remember when
We would dance in your apartment ’til neighbors would knock on your door?
And I remember, do you remember when
We had no money to speak of, nowhere else to eat but your floor…
The third “mellow” song on the album is another acoustic-type track, this time driven by a programmed rhythm, which was described by one of the band members as something which sounded like Third Eye Blind at first (this not being a compliment), but that they managed to turn into something more. It’s a good microcosm of this album’s strengths and weakness. The strength is that they can change up their usual song format and still involve the entire band and layer things for a full sound when they’re not “rocking out”. The weakness is that it’s a little too obvious of a “Remember the days when we were young and innocent and had really trivial problems?” type of song, probably destined for a shopping mall or a 90210 episode near you. They even pull the “lo-fi recording of the band singing around a campfire” sort of trick as the song’s catchy “la-la”s fade out into an ad hoc sing-along with folks clapping and sounding like they’re having a blast in the studio and trying to make it seem more spontaneous than it probably really was. It’s a bit of a cliche in rock music these days, honestly. Though it is amusing to hear Stephen’s excited scream, “I wanna hear you again!” juxtaposed against that laid-back, informal setting as the song fades out.

10. Haight Street
The rear view mirror shows the times we’re abandoning
Let’s leave this night behind, forgetting all they say
The time we had is time well borrowed
Stay out all night, forget tomorrow…
You know, I kind of hate it (hey, “hate”, I made a pun on the song’s title!) when bands name songs after places I’ve been to, but the place name is really just a throwaway reference within a song that really could take place anywhere. This tune, another entry in too long of a list of “poppy sort-of-rockers” on this album, makes its oblique reference to a San Francisco neighborhood known for being a hippie haven with its awkwardly phrased opening line “Let’s you and me make our way just beyond Haight Street” (seriously, who would ever say those words in that order in everyday conversation?), before diverging into a general rosey-eyed “carpe diem” sort of song about being “old enough to know, but too young to care”. Coming after a song that already did a lot of reminiscing about being young and foolish, this is kind of redundant. There are some Jimmy Eat World styled “whoa”s in the bridge where the guitars get a little heavier, but that’s a well they’ve already gone to more than they really should have on this album, and really, Anberlin is too good at writing more translucent lyrics about more “dangerous” subjects to spend three minutes splashing around in the proverbial kiddie pool.

11. Soft Skeletons
There’s life in your veins
These needles are chains to hold you down
How can you expect to win this war
If you’re too afraid to fight?
I was ready to dismiss this one a mid-tempo filler track until I paid closer attention to it and realized that it provided the meatier lyrical content I’d been asking for. It strikes a good balance between quiet tension and guitar-driven intensity, with the tones of a Wurlitzer peeking through during the sparse verses and bridge, as Stephen describes a young girl’s battle with the withdrawal syptoms brought on by a drug she’s trying to kick. Drug abuse is a song that the band tackled rather well without getting preachy about it in “Dance, Dance Christa Paffgen”, and here they show a good amount of empathy for the suffering addict without casting stones, but at the same time challenging her to endure the pain for the freedom that awaits on the other side. It’s a difficult personal war to fight. He sees her losing the battle, and his desperation to help really comes clear when the song is listened to more carefully.

12. Miserabile Visu (Ex Malo Bonum)
Before the red priest took his last breath
He told me, “Child, now don’t forget
The sun will turn dark very soon
Your days are numbered when there’s blood on the moon…”
Every Anberlin album closes with a track that serves as the band’s attempt to outdo the epic, dramatic scope of their previous finale (at least, if you don’t count “Naive Orleans”, but that was their first album and they were still a bit green at the time). The last album’s “(*Fin)” was so chock full of high drama that it threatened to go way over the top on several occasions, but now I love it for all of its manic excess. If their intent here was to outdo that one, then I kind of question whether they thought they could accomplish that with a much shorter run time (6 and a half minutes compared to nearly 9), a slow, plodding tempo, and an almost total lack of guitar until nearly halfway through the song (OK, maybe there is a guitar in there, but the tone of it sounds like a keyboard to my ears, and the song’s almost entirely drums and vocals up until that point). As far as subject matter goes, they’ve certainly outdone their former ambitions by attempting to tackle the Book of Relevation and the “end of the age”. The song tells a chilling tale of a “red priest” and his prophecies, which make the most direct Biblical references of any album they’ve done so far (they’re usually tagged a “Christian rock” band by association with their former label and other artists they have things in common with, but in terms of content, the references have been largely oblique, if present at all). It’s a bleak, but compelling tune, and again, they’re not trying to be preachy; I just think they like the drama inherent in a story about natural disasters and supernatural power plays tearing apart the world that humans have created in the final battle for control of the universe. Once the full band breaks in at somewhere around the three minute mark and Stephen begins pleading “Look, children, to the eastern sky!”, that’s where the song turns from ominous to thrilling, especially when Joey lets loose an unabashedly 80’s-inspired guitar solo close to the end. It almost feels like the battle ends too soon and the song closes too conventionally after all of the buildup. But it’s still striking, and I should note that Stephen Christian’s voice has come a long way – he really stretches himself with some of the falsetto notes that he hits here, and it works beautifully.

Well, I criticized a number of “poppier” songs on this album, but I don’t want to hit the panic button and say that Anberlin sold out or anything. (If you’re curious, go to YouTube and look up “anberlin compound lockdown” for a humorous look at the band’s opinion of what it means to sell out.) They’ve still got a 4-star record on their hands here. And I can still see good things in this band’s future. But all it takes is for one “mainstream” record to get a lukewarm response, and you’re basically done in the eyes of the general public, and you’re back to the “niche” market the next thing you know. So I hope this record racks up a strong single or two even if I don’t feel that it represents the band’s best work. That’ll give them the chance to go back and hopefully record a follow-up that is more of the same caliber material as Cities… or better still. Hey, I’m an optimist. (At least, I am this time.)

WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
The Resistance $2
Breaking $1.50
Blame Me! Blame Me! $.50
Retrace $1.50
Feel Good Drag $1.50
Disappear $1
Breathe $1.50
Burn Out Brighter (Northern Lights) $0
Younglife $1
Haight Street $0
Soft Skeletons $1
Miserabile Visu (Ex Malo Bonum) $1.50
TOTAL: $13

BAND MEMBERS:
Stephen Christian: Vocals, guitar, piano, synthesizer
Joseph Milligan: Guitar
Nathan Young: Drums
Christian McAlhaney: Guitar
Deon Rexroat: Bass

LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
https://open.spotify.com/album/4q76zB2vUHF6Pf2AlxnXQ0

MORE USEFUL LINKS:
http://www.anberlin.com/
http://www.myspace.com/anberlin

Originally published on Epinions.com.

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