Album: Smoke & Mirrors
In Brief: It is what it is. If that seems like a frustratingly vague description, then well, that’s exactly how this album makes me feel.
Oh, Lifehouse. What a love/hate relationship you and I seem to have. Every time I think you might grow a personality again due to the presence of a new band member or an apparent attempt at a new musical direction, I find myself let down by what feels like a subdued version of the same things that you used to do well. It’s been five years since I first started to feel iffy about you guys, following the membership shakeups that led to your subpar self-titled album. The post-grungy pop subgenre that you guys tend to inhabit was already showing its age by then, but that one was definitely a nail in its coffin. Then you came up with Who We Are in 2007, a record which I was reluctant to approach but which grew on me with its return to more of a up-tempo sound, with the jarring rocker “The Joke” sticking out as your most inspired moment against your usual backdrop of harmless but pleasant songs of love and conflict. I didn’t love that album, but it was above average. I liked it. I figured maybe you’d rack up a few hits to bring lapsed fans back into the fold and then maybe branch out a bit more once they were on board, and try something that stretched your songwriting skills a bit, a la Stanley Climbfall. I guess my calculations were off, though, because the up-tempo mood of Who We Are with a side dose of the self-titled’s generic lack of inspiration carries directly forward into Smoke & Mirrors, which might just be your most middle-of-the-road album yet. I’m certainly more interested in it than your self-titled. But not by much.
The thing is, I think you guys sort of fell victim to a curse after your first album. No Name Face wasn’t anything terribly original, but given the time and place that it landed in, it felt like a breath of fresh air in an otherwise downtrodden genre. Fans are likely to remember the monumental “Hanging by a Moment” and “Everything” as the two best songs in our canon despite reasonably good hits like “You and Me” or “First Time” that showed up later. The songwriting was simply better back before you guys discovered that the more vague and wistful the mood, the more likely your songs were to land themselves on the soundtracks to teenybopper drama shows. I can’t blame a song for how it’s later repurposed by pop culture, but at many points on Smoke & Mirrors, it feels like you guys are holding back on the specifics with the hope of casting your nets as wide as possible. The emotion in such songs generally can’t compare to the the subtle God-haunted writings of your early days. And I can’t see a misfit like “Simon” or “Quasimodo” feeling at home on such a slick and clean-cut new album either. You guys can still write a catchy tune, but with each passing year, I feel more and more like you guys are being groomed.
Now let’s be fair – I’m not upset with you guys not sounding like a “Christian band” or whatever. I might have gotten excited about a band making waves in the mainstream with a Christian songwriter at the helm 10 years ago, but these days, this is old hat to me, and I actually worry for some of these bands that Christian subculture might try to mis-appropriate them. I just felt like there was more of a personal stake in Jason Wade‘s songwriting in those early days. That’s not to say that there wasn’t some painfully honest stuff about his divorce on that otherwise loathsome self-titled disc – it just all came out as a bit fatalistic and not particularly insightful. Who We Are focused more on a return to that loving feeling, and went down easier for it, but generally didn’t reach as deep for meaningful observations. Nowadays, I feel like you guys are stuck in a bi-polar tetherball match between the euphoria of young love and the dejected feeling of love growing old and falling apart. Little of this seems genuine, placed so close together on an album that feels like it wants to be relevant to the landscape of popular music in 2010 (which to you guys, seems to amount to little more than the scattered use of drum programming and vocorders) while still evoking a sense of nostalgia for the days when alt-rock with brazen power chords and deep baritone vocals was all the rage. These elements are like oil and water, and while I can hear the occasional glimmer of inspiration on Smoke & Mirrors, for the most part, it feels like a bunch of parlor tricks designed to hook the human ear using the most obvious approach, with little regard for any lasting effects in the years to come. I don’t hate it, but I certainly don’t think it shows the strengths which I naively believe you guys still have, buried somewhere underneath the need to succeed at radio.
1. All In
Don’t let the acoustic guitar intro fool you – this album may get off to a soft-spoken start, but this won’t be a repeat of the self-titled. It doesn’t take long for the first track to pick up steam and develop into one of those big, affirming choruses in which a guy declares that he’s going for it even if he’s unsure, ’cause that’s just the way it’s meant to be. If this theme, and the overall melody and structure of the song, sound incredibly familiar, then trust me, you’re not just hearing things. Remember “Disarray”, and how that was only a slight facelift on “Spin”? Yeah, this is kind of like that, with a slight dose of “Hanging by a Moment” thrown in for good measure, and yet without the distinctive stamp that made that song such a standout. I can’t say that I hate the song for trying – it’s got a decent enough metaphor that likens staying in love to betting everything on a card game, and I have to admire the commitment and tenacity expressed, as well as some interesting choices of words such as “I spent a week away from you last night” (a line which sounded stupid at first, but I get it – the separation seems painfully long even when it’s only a day or so in reality). But for a song about taking chances, it’s a bit disconcerting that the band sticks so doggedly to their tried and true formula for obvious pop hooks. Some hooks are great, until you run the same general idea into the ground. There might be subtle elements such as the use of keyboards which are slightly different for Lifehouse, but despite the catchiness, they’re off to a rather pedestrian start.
2. Nerve Damage
The second track is an odd-man-out that briefly restores my faith in the band’s willingness to try new things. The mood is airy, detached, almost depressed at first, as Jason Wade half-mumbles and half-sings that he can see through someone’s clothes (no, not like that) to the visible scars on their skin that have resulted in a lack of feeling over time. It works, because the detached mood matches the languid pace of the music, even if this is a bit sudden at only the second song on the album. The chorus takes a hard right turn into slamming rock & roll territory, which is aggressive by Lifehouse standards – not hard rock of course, but interesting in its own right as a sort of hybrid between edgy riff rock and the more quiet, almost bluesy interludes of the verses and bridge. Wade even gets to play a halfway decent solo here (or perhaps it’s second guitarist Ben Carey) – it’s somewhat mournful and not at all flashy, and thus not what I’d expect from Lifehouse. That’s a good thing. The rapid-fire nature of the chorus makes it a good exercise in contrasts – the numbness followed by a sudden rush of angst. I’m sure most of the radio-oriented fans will hate it, or just hear the slow intro and skip it outright, but because it’s the rare moment where Lifehouse tries on some new clothes, it’s my favorite on the album by default.
3. Had Enough
Between the acoustic info and another full-throated chorus with the melody bouncing up and down rather predictably, this one feels like yet another instance of the formula used to make “All In” at first. Mood-wise, it’s like a lot of the fatalistic, end-of-relationship songs that plagued the self-titled, though there’s a little more backbone here, so with time, I’ve grown to see how this one stands out ever-so-slightly from the similar material that surrounds it. The music is merely serviceable, but the lyrics hit hard once I’ve gotten over the generic phrasing – “Every time I reach for you, there’s nothing left to hold on to” and all those sorts of angsty teen drama sentiments. The song actually paints a decent picture of what a relationship can end up like when one person has either fallen into depression or just checked out emotionally, and is going through the motions and seems to want to keep it together, but without showing the other person that there’s all that much left to love about them. Eventually a person has to have the guts to say “I’ve had it”, and while this is the exact opposite of the conclusion reached in “All In”, I’ll try not to hold one song against the other.
4. Halfway Gone
You’ve probably heard this one on the radio, since it was released well in advance of the album. Truth be told, the single choice and the pushed back release date aren’t good signs for Lifehouse. The latter indicates that their label isn’t totally sure how to market them or whether they’ll succeed against industry heavyweights releasing records at around the same time. The former indicates that they’re trying to play it as safe as possible, promotion-wise, because to me this sounds like the typical Lifehouse song, but slightly overproduced. I’ve seen a few live videos floating around where Jason Wade is obviously using pitch correction, and that effect is obvious on this song, not quite to the point of being a stylistic choice, but simply sounding like a half-cooked concession to pop radio sensibilities. Are his vocal abilities truly faltering as he gets older, or does the band really think this sort of thing sounds cool at a point in music history when even the urban music kingpins who popularized it are starting to distance themselves from it? Also notice that I’ve gotten so far into describing this song without mentioning the lyrics, which lament a lack of ability to keep promises in a relationship, and basically serve as a threat to dump someone because of it. Here, it just sounds to bitter for its breezy pop/rock trappings, and not as pointedly phrased (relatively speaking) as the song that immediately preceded it. I could take or leave this one – it’s not overly irritating, but it also doesn’t do Lifehouse any favors.
5. It Is What It Is
Well, Rick Woolstenhume, I hope you’re enjoying being slowly replaced by a drum machine! This is the kind of song where I hope against the realities dictated by logic that fiddling around with programmed, vaguely urban-sounding beats was the band’s idea and not the producer’s. The combination of piano and the slick bump-hiss of an R&B rhythm morphed to fit the mood of white-boy mope rock actually doesn’t sound too bad here. For those who liked “Broken” on the last CD, this is like a slightly funkier version of that, musically speaking. It’s a pseudo-ballad about, what else, a breakup. Sometimes you’ve gotta call a spade a spade and admit that something isn’t working out. I get that, even if I think the phrase “it is what it is” gets overused as a convenient way around having to actually explain what one is thinking or feeling. Compare this to the similarly defeatist relationship songs on the self-titled disc, and I suppose this one comes out a winner. It’s not half bad, as a glossed-up pop song, but I have slight misgivings about what it’s doing on a Lifehouse album.
6. From Where You Are
The album’s mellowest song (and it’s actually surprising that there are so few ballads, considering that’s usually a hallmark of pedestrian rock records) revolves around a watery electric guitar melody and production that is really too mushy to fully sell the lonely mood of the song, in which a lost lover is addressed from afar as if they were a ghost, someone haunting the room despite not being physically there. It’s pretty typical as those sorts of songs go – descriptions of the distance between them, the expression of regret, wishing one could go back and rewrite those lost years, etc. The lyrics are far from the band’s strongest, given phrasing such as “These miles have torn us worlds apart.” Despite the fact that it personally does nothing for me, it seems to be popular with the band’s fans, but that might just be due to the fact that it’s been floating around unattached to an album for a few years now. Thematically, it fits here, but when playing the album through in sequence, I find myself impatient to get on with the second half of it already.
7. Smoke & Mirrors
Then I remember that there ain’t much to look forward to in the second half. The back side (humor me and imagine that albums still have sides) kicks the tempo back up with an ever-so-vaguely country-sounding guitar riff, in a song that ultimately isn’t distinctive enough to really commit to the slight twang or the conversational singing style that it flirts with. I can see the band trying to change things up here as they dip into hints of a new style to describe a relationship that reveals itself to have no substance when examined more slowly. Unfortunately, I feel like I could say that about the song itself. It slips back into the old habit of pumping out a chorus that lifts and falls in the same place as almost every Lifehouse chorus, repeating the same melody three times and then neatly resolving itself on the fourth line. You can play around with escapist road metaphors all you want, but that doesn’t substitute for the actual ability to write a song which transports the listener to another place and time.
8. Falling In
I know I’m being really nitpicky here, but it always bugs me when a band gets so uncreative with song titles that the title of one song is contained within the title of another song from that same album. See “All In” and “Falling In”. (Not to mention the fact that the self-titled album had a song called “All in All”, which I forgot about up ’til now because, well, that album was really forgettable.) Lyrically, this otherwise unremarkable, mid-tempo song does a total 180 on the forlorn musings about lost love heard previously, self-consciously plunging itself into a much more innocent experience as it declares “Don’t look down, it’s only love, baby, that we’re falling in.” Yeah, that’s the main hook. And aside from the obvious complaint I’ll make about ending a sentence in a preposition, the whole thing is just awkwardly stated. This is generic pop/rock pabulum designed to make sure that you tune in to next week’s episode of Supernaturalville or whatever show the flavor-of-the-month 20-something hunks are starring in nowadays.
9. Wrecking Ball
Hang on to your hats folks, because it gets worse. I never actually noticed that the band’s bassist, Bryce Soderberg, had contributed lyrics and lead vocals to a track on Who We Are, but I’ve found that out in retrospect. The song was “Bridges”, and I liked it well enough. Here he tries his hand again, trading the well-trodden destructive metaphor of bridges burning for a similar metaphor about a girl knocking a guy down as if she were a wrecking ball. I’d feel passive indifference about such a song in most cases, but it turns to active derision when I hear how heavily Bryce’s voice (and presumably Jason’s on backup duty as well) gets manipulated by the auto-tuner from hell. Any complaints I made about this effect in “Halfway Gone” can be made in triplicate about this awful song, and while the drums at least sound live and not programmed, Rick still sounds bored playing ’em. I’m not sure what’s more embarrassing here – the second verse’s hilarious awful declaration that “I’m a fool, a mechanical tool for you” (congratulations dude, you just called yourself a vibrator!), or the fact that you can hear the band applauding their own work in the studio as the song winds down – which is usually one of those things a band tacks on for fun at the end of a song that was reasonably energetic and/or brought a real “party vibe” to the recording songs. This song can claim neither, and unless that applause means “This was the last song we had to chart, and now we’re done with these miserable recording sessions, thank God!”, it’s completely out of place.
10. Here Tomorrow Gone Today
Now I’m going to pull a total 180 and actually tell you that I like a song where Lifehouse dared to pull that vocorder crap yet again. There’s something different about it here, more of a “grinding machine” feel to the way that the drum programming thumps along in time with the distorted vocals at the beginning of the song and the way it all builds to the “comparatively” more organic energy that bursts free during the chorus. Lifehouse generally isn’t known for their fist-pumping anthems, but as they proceed to tell off some fake lying liar who likes to make a lot of lofty promises and then disappear before delivering on any of them, I find that it’s actually quite fun to sing along as Jason finds the wherewithal to actually put an exclamation point on his vocals for a change. There’s still the problem of the lyrics being generic enough to keep the track from having any teeth as a true protest song – but you can fill in the blank and imagine you’re picketing your least favorite politician, preacher, celebutante, or what have you.
11. By Your Side
Oh, please. Another generic mid-tempo track, this time trying to convince someone that you’ll be right there for them as they get older and times get tough? I’m not even going to dignify this with an in-depth description. BORING. Next!
12. In Your Skin
The album closes on a fairly upbeat note, not with an all-out rocker, but with something that at least dares to have a bit of rhythmic backbone to it. It’s passable as bouncy rock music if you don’t listen too carefully, but closer inspection reveals it to hang out in the general melodic neighborhood of the first album’s “Quasimodo” (a much better song), and to have all the lyrical depth of Switchfoot on a bad day. (I like Switchfoot a great deal, but a sentiment such as “It’s time to begin, there’s only one life in your skin” is ten moves beyond the move I’ve already been dared to make a bazillion times.) So basically, they mean well, but fail to stand out here for any reason other than the surprise of the album coming to a sudden halt rather than closing out on a slow, pensive note.
There are bonus tracks, if you buy the expanded edition of Smoke & Mirrors. You’ll get three new studio cuts – “All that I’m Asking For” (how about a little more creativity?), “Crash and Burn” (an apt description of the band’s work of late), and “Near Life Experience” (I guess I can’t make the obvious joke twice), and none of these are particularly worth writing home about. You’ll also get a “live in studio” version of “Everything”, the massive fan favorite from the band’s early days, and it’s quite telling that this version, which leans more on the live guitars, bass, and drums, and strips away the strings and ornamentation of the original, is the most exciting thing on Smoke & Mirrors by far. Is just isn’t fair to even reference this song in the same breath as most of Lifehouse’s newer work. It only serves to show how far they’ve fallen.
Usually I’d hold out hope that a band who put out two or three above average albums in the past could continue to surprise me on future albums, by changing directions and experimenting a bit. But the longer Lifehouse goes on, the more I worry that most of their “experiments” will just take them in the wrong directions, as ill-conceived attempts to stay on top of trends that were never meant to co-exist with a once-trendy style that’s now fallen out of favor. If they continues to make well-written alternative rock/post-grunge/whatever you want to call it with a solid amount of emotion and at least a moderate amount of ingenuity behind it, I’d have positive expectations, but they seem to be floundering and falling back on the easy out of love songs and breakup songs far too often. So I’m expecting future releases to follow templates, sad to say. If you weren’t a fan before, I highly doubt that Smoke & Mirrors, or likely any of their future work, will make you one.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
All In $1
Nerve Damage $1.50
Had Enough $1
Halfway Gone $.50
It Is What It Is $1
From Where You Are $.50
Smoke & Mirrors $.50
Falling In $0
Wrecking Ball -$.50
Here Tomorrow Gone Today $1
By Your Side $0
In Your Skin $.50
Jason Wade: Lead vocals, guitars
Rick Woolstenhume: Drums, percussion
Bryce Soderberg: Bass
Ben Cary: Guitars
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: