In Brief: A bit skimpy, but what’s here is largely consistent. A solid album, if not a particularly ambitious one.
I’m tempted to pull out that old adage “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” every time I review a new Anberlin album. They’re on their fifth one now; surely I must have done this as far back as Never Take Friendship Personal. But when a band’s more known for their consistency than for baffling us with the dreaded “Comeback Album on Which We Totally Reinvented Ourselves to Stay Relevant!!!”, it becomes tricky to come up with new things to say about their sound. To Anberlin’s credit, they’ve remained one of my favorite bands while making only minor tweaks to their highly driven modern rock sound, getting progressively darker up through their third album Cities, and only truly trying their hand at straight-up pop radio singles with their fourth album, New Surrender. Even on that disc, which was their mainstream debut (and which I’d consider to be their least consistent album from track to track), there was plenty of energetic riffage and killer vocal work to go around – a band can be forgiven for mostly doing the same thing when they do it well. Still, there comes a point where you’ve honed the formula of thundering rock anthems, dramatically intimate power ballads, and over-the-top closing numbers all trying to outdo each other so well that it can be easy to compare old songs to new songs and say, “I liked X better when it was called Y”. The band’s newest album, featuring the unwieldy title Dark Is the Way, Light Is a Place, might be the first point where that sense of deja vu bugs me to the point where it keeps most of the songs out of that upper echelon of rocking greatness.
Now I’ve been wrong about this before. I thought that most of Cities was a not-as-good rehash at first, only realizing its consistency and its overall greatness later on, due to the darker, more confessional tone that was maintained throughout the bulk of its songs. Dark Is the Way sounds like a conscious attempt to regain that darker edge after the mostly lighter fare on New Surrender. (Keep in mind that this “lighter fare” still included songs about fiery revolutions, lust, drug use, and the apocalypse. It wasn’t all a bunch of silly love songs or anything.) Musically, I think they’ve nailed it – these ten tracks are a quick blast of lean & mean rocking attitude, for the most part. Lyrically, I’m not so certain. The sentiments seem more vague, more malleable, less willing to face the darkness head-on this time. At worst, the band isn’t as obvious or cloying as “Burn Out Brighter” or “Younglife”, but despite some innovation in the R&R department (Riffs and Rhythms, that is), I feel like they’ve rocked stronger and more convincingly in the past. The scope of it just isn’t as epic, and the scant tracklisting, with its ten songs, suggests that solid material was harder to come by, causing the band to trim the fat in order to avoid the schizophrenic feel of New Surrender.
But don’t misconstrue of critiques for disappointment here. Even though they’re not trying to radically reinvent their sound, these guys seriously know how to play. Lead singer Stephen Christian has never sounded more satisfyingly ferocious (and unlike some of the more famously boisterous vocalists in rock & roll, he knows when to wail and when pull it back for something more heartfelt or more darkly detached, depending on the situation). Longtime lead guitarist Joey Milligan is as fast-fingered as ever, and rhythm guitarist Christian McAlhaney continues to back him up effectively without most of the songs falling victim to predictable power chord sludge. The rhythm section of Deon Rexroat and Nathan Young borders on thundering at times, but can still pull it back for something more contemplative. They’re all covering territory that they know well, but they’re quite good at it. The songwriting, while it relies heavily on themes of distant lovers that were perhaps better explored on older albums, is generally convincing and relatable enough to give the listener an easy emotional connection to each song. This stuff is the meat & potatoes of modern rock music, really, but it’s some good eatin’ all the same.
1. We Owe This to Ourselves
Joey Milligan rips into this one with fingers flailing about, creating a dizzying riff that sounds like it’s a total blast to play. He doesn’t let up through most of the song, nor does Nate Young on the drums. When Stephen Christian comes out with melodic, yet near-screaming vocals, it’s clear that this is a furious opening track that’s every bit as exciting as “The Resistance” or “Godspeed”… except for the one little detail of the bridge. You know how sometimes heavy rockers like this will let up for a moment of calm somewhere in the middle of the song. Anberlin does that here, scaling the drums back to a more relaxed beat and letting keyboards and general atmospherics take over, which would have been the perfect place for some profound lyrical point to blow us away… but there is none. No lyrics. Not even that noticeable of a guitar solo. Just a gap in the song for no great reason. It takes some of the wind from the sails of an otherwise excellent protest song, which cries out against war and corrupt leadership, perhaps somewhat vaguely, but effectively.
It seems like it’s become tradition for the second song on an Anberlin album to explain why a relationship went wrong. On “Adelaide” and “Breaking”, the girl was simply a tease, out to get what she wanted and not caring whether she left hearts broken. Here, amidst the steady pounding off drums and some ingenious use of guitar delay that creates a veritable rainfall of notes, they tell the tale of two people wearing each other out – they don’t seem to belong together, yet they’re apparently cursed with some sort of magnetism towards each other all the same, creating a frustrating situation with no solution. Stephen’s at the point of apathy when he cries out in the chorus, “Take what you want from me, it means nothing now.” He can’t get her to cooperate, yet he seems determined that one day he can change her into whatever he wants her to be. Solid guitar solo here, even if it’s somewhat typical by Anberlin standards. As usual with these sorts of songs, they’ve struck gold with a memorable melody and a driving beat. I like that the song’s unafraid to be so poppy and yet unapologetic about the messed-up-ness of the relationship it describes.
3. Take Me (As You Found Me)
You can tell from the muted guitar picking at the beginning of this song and the overall relaxed pace that this is going to be one of the band’s patchwork ballads, slowly piecing together its own momentum in the vein of “Retrace” or “Inevitable”. I’m actually reminded of the latter quite a bit once the drums get going, since the song is more driven by rhythm than it is by a guitar melody, though Deon’s bass is more noticeable than usual as well. What’s interesting here is that despite the mellower tone, Stephen’s got a hoarse edge to his voice, which seems out of place at first (kind of like Bono in U2‘s “Moment of Surrender”, though not quite as egregious), but it adds a lot of passion to the song as his performance fluctuates between smooth and edgy. This sounds like a mushy love song if taken superficially, but as usual, there’s a little more to Anberlin’s forlorn lyrics. The song is the voice of a man almost begging to be used: “Leave me wanting the rest of your life” and “Who’s gonna drain my blood now that you’re gone?” aren’t exactly the healthiest of statements. I think it speaks to the desperation felt when an unhealthy relationship ends – the abuse seems more normal and acceptable than the scary unknown of being alone.
The delay pedal on the electric guitar is prominent here once again, though not quite at the same furious pace as “Impossible”. This one’s got more bite to it when the tricky dance of drums and guitars gives way to the chorus, which is more in line with the full-volume roar of some of Anberlin’s past rockers. It’s a good combination of new and old sounds for the band. This is actually a pretty simple song that tries to call someone out of hiding, asking them to come into the light and show their true selves. Stephen indicates that he’s got just as many scars, and reasons to fear rejection, but he’s putting himself out there anyway: ‘Do you expect me to keep from crawling back?/Do you accept me when we both know my past?” This song’s almost so simple that it shouldn’t work, especially since the chorus is so reliant on one repeated word. It succeeds because Stephen and the rest of the band really sink their teeth into it.
5. You Belong Here
I don’t mind the occasional Anberlin song that is more sentimental. “Inevitable” and “Breathe” rank among my favorites. But there’s something about the ringing echo and the glossy chorus of “You belong here, you were meant to be with me” that opens this song which rubs me the wrong way. Maybe the lyrics feel too obvious here, like they got self-conscious about the dark mood of the other songs and felt like they should throw something apologetic and happy in there. I don’t even know that I’d classify it as a ballad, as it moves along at a reasonably fast pace with a moderately punchy chorus. Maybe I don’t care for it as much because the sudden shift in moods is so jarring – he’s practically putting the girl on a pedestal and admitting he doesn’t have much to give, but let’s give it a go anyway. “But I’ll give you all I have/It isn’t much, not much at all/But a heart that’s not worth breaking/Isn’t worth much, not at all.” I don’t know; I feel like I’ve heard that said much more eloquently before. I’m sure this would be as fun live as many of their songs, but on the album, it feels like B-side material compared to what surrounds it.
6. Pray Tell
I love it when rock bands do rhythmic breakdown stuff like this. They’ve perhaps the densest track on the record, galloping along on a series of syncopated stomps and claps that get overtaken by the drum kit at the chorus – everything here is rumbling sixteenth notes and the sheer motion of it is just awesome. Where guitar riffs poke out, they too are of the rhythmic, one or two-note variety, yet the vocal melody is classic Anberlin – dark verse, soaring chorus. There’s a neat wash of vocals in the bridge that offers a slight break from all the pounding. This song feels like a companion to “Closer”, perhaps stating its intent a little more clearly as it pleads for full disclosure from someone who fears their true self being known. Since the phrase “I’m the only one that can save you now” is so prominent, and since the song’s title ever-so-subtly alludes to prayer, you could give this one a religious interpretation if you like. But as with most Anberlin songs, the meaning can work both ways. I love how they pull this one off with the motion of a freight train and yet find little moments of finesse to weave into it.
7. The Art of War
This might be the most bitter breakup song that Anberlin has ever recorded. I’ll have to check back, since it seems like there are more than a few in their back catalogue. What’s interesting is that it’s more cold and detached, almost electronic, as its verse slowly crawls along. Stephen drags out the words and it seems like he really wants the denouncement of an old lover to ring loud and clear. For what this is, the metaphor is a bit ill-conceived and incomplete – he asks “Am I the greatest in your arsenal?” and alludes to weapons and war, but I feel like there should have been more to flesh out exactly how he felt he was used. Instead we get a lot of vagueness: “You’re no good at what you said you’d do to me” and so forth. The chorus might be one of the most embarrassing since “Foreign Language” on Blueprints for the Black Market, unfortunately – any broken-hearted 16-year-old could probably come up with “There are songs I’ll never write/Because of you walking out of my life/There are words that don’t belong/Because of you I’ll never write another love song.” Come on, budding songwriters, admit it. You probably thought it was clever at some point to write a song about something holding up the songwriting process. it’s a classic workaround for writer’s block. And it can be quite a clever one if used more subtly – but Anberlin paints with such broad strokes here that I have to ask, “Really? Never ever? What about the love song we heard two tracks ago – did you finish that one first, and will no one else ever be deserving of such an attempt?” Fine, so it’s easy to speak in superlatives when you’re heartbroken. It doesn’t change the fact that this song doesn’t ring true, and it doesn’t live up to the potential contained in its title (being too straightforward to be terribly artistic, and too mopey to put up much of a fight).
8. To the Wolves
We dive right back into the rock action here, with a start-stop riff effectively executed by Joey and Christian. Stephen’s still in emo mode about the ex who betrayed him – you can probably guess what metaphor he’s using for the emotional state she left him in by looking at the title. This one’s fun to wail along to, and there’s a good amount of “whoa” action even though that’s nothing new for the band. There’s another passable guitar solo, and all the basic ingredients of a catchy rock song are there. If it sounds like I’m saying this is adequate but not terribly inventive, that’s because it’s exactly how I feel. There’s not much beyond the surface here – the point is that some girl was a big lying liar who lied. “Who needs enemies when we’ve got friends like you?” Yeah, that’s just a bit harsh – no beating around the bush here.
Whoa, mood whiplash! One thing that Anberlin is really good at, but that they perhaps don’t get enough credit for, is their ability to rework songs acoustically. Listen to unplugged versions of some of their most intense rockers, and even though Stephen will scale the vocals way back, Joey will still pull off some tricky fingerwork on the acoustic guitar. This translated quite well to a full-fledged acoustic song in the form of “The Unwinding Cable Car”, which turned out to be my favorite track on Cities despite the presence of several hard-hitting rock tracks. This new song evokes the same mood by… almost shamelessly stealing the acoustic riff from that earlier song. Seriously, you might as well call this “The Rewinding Cable Car.” To be fair, it doesn’t have the same climax with the drums coming in and stuff – but that climax was awesome. This one’s merely pretty good – basically an apology from a wounded man to a woman who has met him at an inopportune time for a relationship – “You caught me on my way down.” I like the honesty here, the admission that he’s at a total loss and won’t try to put on a face. While Anberlin doesn’t bill itself as a “Christian band”, specifically, I wish more Christian music took this sort of an approach. (Aside from the whole “ripping off ideas from themselves that were better executed in the original song” thing. But a shadow of a great song that still sounds pretty good isn’t a terrible thing in this case.)
We all know what to expect from an Anberlin finale at this point – long run time, slow build to a climax, lots of pent-up drama pouring out at the end. Follow that blueprint laid out so well by “(*Fin)” and “Miserabile Visu”, but take away the Latin and rush things a bit, and you’ll get this. A simple, four-note riff echoes into the night as Stephen sings the compelling words “Are you depraved or are you deceived? Excuses aside, stop saying please”, which is a great opening, but repeated a bit too much for the rest of the song to really give it the weight it deserves. As they drive toward the chorus, another repeating line is sung with increasing intensity: “You’re not a slave, so get off your knees”. They’re pretty clearly dealing with sin here, addressing a man at the lowest stage of down-and-out. Though given that, they sound more cynical than sympathetic, as the chorus simply cries, “Someone tell me I’m wrong about you!” The song rises and falls through intense moments and quiet ones, going for the throat in terms of emotional impact, especially as it slams into high gear toward the end. The problem is that it’s used up all of its lyrical ideas by a few minutes into the song, so those pieces just continue to get shuffled around for the rest of the song. If the band wants to be open-ended and allow for multiple meanings, that’s fine – I don’t expect them to be didactic and completely explain themselves. But the ambiguity here keeps me at arm’s length from the song – I enjoy listening to it but I don’t get the shivers that previous finales gave me (those tended to be “lyrically long” as well). By the time it finally culminates in a bell tolling four times for this helpless individual, I’m left thinking, “That’s it? Really?” I suppose there’s nowhere else to go after a certain point when the band has done such long, meandering finales for three albums running. Still, once you’ve set such a standard, backing off on it even slightly makes it feel an awful lot like the first time we saw an M. Night Shyamalan film without a shocking twist at the end. it just isn’t the same.
To put it simply, I like Anberlin better when their work has more meat on its bones. There are far worse things to listen to than thirty minutes and change of a talented band slamming and riffing their way through ten mostly energetic songs, so don’t take any of this as a non-recommendation. Just expect the depth of this record to be more implied than displayed. Some of the experiences that led to Dark is the Way‘s creation may have been too traumatic to describe in greater detail, for all I know, but then again, we’ve heard more soul-baring breakup songs from tons of other rock bands, plus several of these songs place value on total openness and honesty. So I can’t really say for sure what led to this record being about two-thirds interesting ideas and one-third filling time. It’s still worth having in the discography for Anberlin fans – it’s above average as all of their albums are. But if you’re new, start with Cities or Never Take Friendship Personal.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
We Owe This to Ourselves $1.50
Take Me (As You Found Me) $1.50
You Belong Here $.50
Pray Tell $2
The Art of War $0
To the Wolves $1
Stephen Christian: Vocals, guitar, piano, synthesizer
Joseph Milligan: Guitar
Nathan Young: Drums
Christian McAlhaney: Guitar
Deon Rexroat: Bass
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Originally published on Epinions.com.