In Brief: A worthy follow-up to Absence, and a strong contender for Album of the Year. Highly recommended to fans of all electronic music genres.
I fell head over heels in love with the band Paper Route two years ago, thanks to an album that seemed to be all about the process of falling out of love. Absence was one of those rock-solid albums that I played over and over that year; it seemed like the perfect storm of electronic impulses meeting a live-band rock sound with plenty of pop sensibility to spare. All of the ear candy could have made it easy to miss the melancholy lyrics, which frequently dealt with the kinds of issues that could drive two soulmates apart, and the aftermath of such a departure. I was going through some stuff at the time, so I related to it pretty deeply. Two years later, I’m thankful that I can say my situation didn’t end the way that it did for the members of Paper Route. The years between Absence and the group’s long-delayed follow-up, The Peace of Wild Things, were rough going for the band, involving the divorce of one band member (not too surprising given the band’s lyrics up to that point, I guess) and the departure of another member from the group. Absence was largely a tag-team between the vocals of J. T. Daly and Andy Smith, which made its songs feel incredibly colorful and multilayered. Andy left in late 2010, leaving Paper Route as a three-piece now fronted solely by Daly. As a result, the group lost the retro falsetto vocals that a lot of 80s throwback bands like to make use of nowadays, and arguably they also lost some of their more off-the-wall production choices. What they gained is perhaps a bit more clarity. And a bit more light to balance out the darkness. I’d say it’s a mostly even trade.
The Peace of Wild Things, with its streamlined sound and its scant ten tracks compared to Absence‘s twelve, might seem like a slight step down in quality at first, at least if you’re like me and you like your music to have a big wall o’ sound and a lot of things going on beneath the surface that you might not notice until several listens later. But it’s important to remember that what could have been a drastic change in the band’s sound is in truth only a small refinement. The balance between live performance and idiosyncratic programming is still flawlessly executed. The songs are still high-energy, only dropping to “ballad speed” when things are about to get really emotionally intense. Some tracks might feel a bit more radio-friendly than most of Absence did (which wasn’t due to a lack of catchiness on that album – there was just an overwhelming amount of sounds to absorb there). Some of them are even downright happy, making Peace an album of deliberate contrasts as giddy love songs collide with heartbroken laments. But either way, this isn’t an example of selling out or taking it easy by any stretch. They’re too invested in the creative process for that, and if there’s any reason to consider Peace a lesser album than Absence, it’s solely because there’s just a bit less new material to absorb this time around.
If you’re new to Paper Route and aren’t coming in with any previous expectations, then the best way I can think of to pique your interest is to list like-minded bands. It’s probably apparent from the band name, but The Postal Service is an obvious comparison here, with the one exception that Daly isn’t trying to go for offbeat, quirky charm like Ben Gibbard so often does. The dreamy synthpop soundscapes of M83 are also a good comparison at times, though Paper Route’s sound isn’t quite as expansive – there’s the occasional sonic detour, but for the most part these guys get to the point a lot quicker. The more melancholy side of Passion Pit might also be a good place to start, or at least if those guys knew when to say when regarding the array of sounds and manic vocals that they throw at their songs. And fans of MuteMath will probably find a lot to love here. Paper Route isn’t just the sum of these parts, because I relate to them in a way that I don’t generally relate to those other bands. But that’s the best primer I can give to someone who has never heard of them until now. If that sounds like an interesting concoction of sounds, then sit down and buckle up – it’s gonna be a thrilling ride.
1. Love Letters
“This time I’m different!”, Daly assures us in an attention-grabbing song that serves to remind us that the new Paper Route will be neither completely predictable nor completely foreign. It’s a hell of a workout for drummer Gavin McDonald, who spends the majority of the song keeping time via these massive drum fills that seem to come crashing down like lightning from above. This has the intensity of an Absence song like “Last Time”, but against all odds for a band who made breakup songs their bread and butter on their first album, it’s a song of pure love and devotion. From the opening words – “You found me sleeping/In Eden’s garden/And my hand was your key/You’ve been waiting for me” – to the chorus which reminds us again and again that “I’ll do anything it takes to get through/I can carry you to any distance”, this is a declaration that leaves no room for the thought of backing down, and the band supports it well with a performance that walks the line perfectly between high drama and feel good synth-pop. Pretty much immediately, my worries about whether the new band configuration can hack it without Andy Smith start to melt away.
2. Two Hearts
This is our first taste of the more “streamlined” sound that this record takes on a few of its more pop-oriented tracks. The verse almost hints at more of an “urban” rhythm, which isn’t as in your face as, say, “Gutter”, but it’s definitely more minimalistic than the usual Paper Route beat, at least until the chorus when McDonald breaks into glorious sixteenth notes. As a result, this slightly more laid-back and sentimental love song splits the difference between modern, syncopated, programmed pop, and the high-flying pop/rock choruses common to some of their 80s and 90s influences. It’s a good mix. Some who related to the angst of Absence might ding the bang for predicating an entire song on the cliche that “Two hearts become one”, but if you look closer at the lyrics, it seems to be about a man giving into that merged identity despite cold hard logic telling him to stand his ground. That internal conflict has perhaps never been summed up more neatly and succinctly: “If the heart is heaven, tell me, would the mind then be hell?” I wouldn’t quite put this one up there with the band’s top tier of songs, but it’s a good potential bridge between a finicky mainstream audience and some of the band’s more involved, emotionally intense material.
3. Better Life
Staying mostly radio-friendly, but switching gears emotionally, is the album’s first single, which is quite clearly about knowing when to call out the time of death on a relationship that just isn’t working out. The unfortunate delay in releasing the album meant that this song was all by its lonesome as a sort of ambassador for the band’s new sound since late last year, and from what I gathered, the initial response from fans was mixed. I tend to believe that since singles so often aren’t representative of an album’s sound, it’s better to wait for the album and hear it in context, so I willfully resisted listening to this one until Peace dropped last month. And I’m glad I did. Taken by itself, it’s easy to hear the stomp and handclap-driven beat of the verse and the highly repetitive chorus (“A better life is waiting/A better life, a better life is waiting”) as an attempt to dumb it down. But as a sort of bridge between lighter and darker material in the album, it’s placed perfectly, with its resigned mood hitting hard and its mid-tempo beat neatly pulling off the balancing act between mourning what has been lost and looking forward to the chance to reinvent oneself after leaving the hurtful relationship. Daly’s vocals are pushed much farther up front here than they were on Absence, to the point where I might not have even realized it was the same guy. It’s clearly a song that meant a lot to him, as if the sentiments “I can’t forget your touch/I’m saying too much” and “What is done is done” were equally heavy burdens on his heart.
4. Glass Heart Hymn
Oh yeah. Stuff just got real. When Chad Howat opens this song with a slithering, sinister, synth bass line, you know that this quiet bit of creeping about in the darkness is going to open up into something massive. At first, it’s a lonelier song than “Dance on Our Graves”, the stunning finale from Absence, with Daly’s pained voice ringing out against the unrelentingly cold rhythm, with very little else going on until some Killers-esque background vocals start to filter in (I’m thinking “Joyride”, but hold the silliness), and some futuristic, slightly abrasive synths show up to punctuate the chorus: “Memories… as heavy as a stone.” This is one of those songs that seeks to embody the idea of working out your salvation with fear and trembling… whatever trauma Daly’s been through, it’s enough for him to question, “Oh Lord, have you walked away from me?” This then opens up into a stunning bridge, as if the clouds opened up and Heaven itself poured out in a host of voices, all singing: “Hallelu, Hallelu, Hallelujah!/Let it rain, let it pour down on ya!” Which could mean just about anything due to the open-ended nature of the lyrics, but the sound of it is like this trembling man suddenly grew a pair of steel ones and decided to stand tall and proud, and not even so much as wince at the sight of an oncoming hurricane. Whatever dark night of the soul is coming, this song seems to be all about acknowledging your deepest fears and then taking it head-on. If the dystopian future seen in some gritty sci-fi flick had its own book of Psalms, then I guess this song would be one of its chapters.
It might feel like a bit of whiplash when the group suddenly breaks out of Depeche Mode mode (um, that was an awkward choice of words on my part) and slides right into a glistening, piano-driven love song with lyrics that veer dangerously close to Owl City territory. If you’re tempted to run screaming, please don’t, because this is a beautiful song, and I think it actually shows a bit of versatility on the band’s part that they can tackle moody and happy songs with the same amount of devotion and attention to detail. The synths intertwine beautifully with the piano here, and another strong vocal performance helps to transform a melody that could seem simplistic and repetitive into something deeply expressive that easily worms its way into the listener’s mind. Here Daly has a funny way of evoking strong images with very few words (“If I’m the great sea/You’re what I’m reflecting/Blue in the evening/So blue in the evening.”) It’s fitting for a song that states within its own lyrics that its writer will not rest until he finds the right words to win a woman back. At the bridge, when an alluring string arrangement breaks in, is where they really pull out all the stops, and the song veers into unapologetically swooning territory, but in a classy sort of way since they brought in Jeremy Larson – a man who’s been known to arrange, perform, and produce quite a few thrilling arrangements in his solo work and for several other artists – to add the proverbial cherry to the top of this sweet dessert. This one’s already got a spot reserved on my personal soundtrack for Valentine’s Day, 2013.
6. You and I
Emotion-wise, the album swings back toward melancholy at this point and more or less stays there. Another potential single shows up here, which makes a move similar to “Better Life” in that it has a simple vocal hook (literally just the three words in the title) to pull us in, but a good deal more than that going on under the surface. This one takes more of a sober look at all of a man’s efforts to win a woman back and decides they’re worthless if she’s still got one hand on the doorknob at all times. It’s almost as if the song is urging her to head for the hills like she means it or else stick around and stop torturing him with all of the back and forth, and either way he’ll be OK with it. That situation of sharing the same physical space while both of you are separately wondering if you’ve got the courage to leave is not a fun thing to experience – I’ve been there and done that, so this song resonates for that reason. Also because it’s got a solid hook. My only problems with it are that (a) I tend to get its melody mixed up with the next song (to the point of mixing up which verse goes with which chorus), and (b) the chorus might pack in a few too many words to flow well with the slick electronic rhythm. But it meets up with the main hook in such a satisfying way that these issues aren’t too big of a deal.
7. Letting You Let Go
An ultimatum is finally offered in this fast-paced, emotionally heavy song that takes off running with the synth keyboard sounding like it’s tapping out an urgent news bulletin or something. All the big shining city lights and futuristic escapism can’t cover the fact that our protagonist is feeling unfairly judged by his lover for past wounds inflicted on her by other men. He calls her out on it, saying that someone hurting her is no excuse for her to treat him so callously, and he doesn’t shy away from the misdeeds that have left their relationship in such a sorry state: “You always wanted the best around/So you messed around/On the blessed ground we stood/Well, it’s now or never.” Man, Absence gave me the sense that someone had put someone in the band through hell, but this one spells it out quite blatantly. Despite that, Daly’s reaction – which could have been unbridled anger or pure bitterness, is instead a bit of an olive branch – he offers freedom if it in fact that’s what she wants. His only demand is that she make up her mind already. Merging this much pathos to wall-of-sound production, complete with a booming bass line, distorted vocal effects, and a reasonably quick pace, is never an easy thing to do without somehow obscuring the meaning of the words. Paper Route pulls it off here without compromising either side of the equation.
The band makes their oddest choice yet with this short song, which is almost an interlude due to having only two scant verses, no drums, and any electronic elements shoved deep into the background ambiance in favor of an a sound that owes far more to fantasy than sci-fi. A harp is slowly, sadly plucked as a female vocalist (the liner notes say it’s Cacie Dalager, who has a sort of girlish innocence to her voice a la Lights or Katie Herzig, but with a slight tinge of sadness to it) wistfully sings to a man she’s apparently lost to the mists of time: “Love… remember when?/By our favorite tree you were holding me/Talking about growing old/And with your hand you traced my eyes.” Daly responds in the second verse, almost as if it’s a dark, brooding reprise to a musical number we’ll never hear, and the two of them finally converge at the line, “Nothing’s gonna hold me back.” It’s like a funeral dirge for a relationship that wasn’t meant to be, and with this sad ceremony, the two have finally set each other free. I wish it could go on a little bit longer, but it’s still quite powerful.
9. Rabbit Holes
The band gives us a final burst of energy here in this highly experimental song, with its warped vocal effects that remind me of M83’s “Midnight City”. That’s about the only similarity, though – instead of a feel-good song about a late-night drive, this claustrophobic, oddly-structured tune seems to be about teetering on the edge of madness and only barely making it back in one piece. I guess a breakup or a divorce’ll do that to some people. Daly engages in a bit of roleplay here, even going so far as to welcome the audience to this bizarre thrill ride, explaining that a woman will play the role of “a villan, a magician, and a monument”. His own personal journey into madness seems to take place while obsessively following her along her own path to the wonderland of her nightmares, and – this is the scary part – it all winds up in a mishmash of broken imagery, delivered calmly and evenly over plucked strings in a strangely subdued bridge section. “I’m jumping out of your crashing plane I wanna fall straight through your lane And every turn of my twisting veins You’re in everything, everything.” Yep, that’s Jeremy Larson handling the strings again, and this is a completely different mood even from the darker songs he’s dreamed up on his own. Gotta love that versatility. For Paper Route’s part, they pick up the live band action right where they left off, as the warped bridge gives way to a passionate finale that seems to be clawing and scratching at every available rock to climb up out of that accursed rabbit hole.
10. Calm My Soul
Sometimes it’s the stuff you write, don’t think much of, and come close to throwing away that ends up speaking to you the most profoundly when you least expect it. That’s what happened to Daly when he rescued this prayerful song from the proverbial graveyard. Paper Route is from Nashville, and I’m a bit murky on their association with the whole Christian music scene, but if there’s any song that might stand a snowball’s chance of getting that audience into them, it would probably be this one. It’s a direct plea to God to do – well, exactly what the title says. But if you hear those first few organ chords and expect that they’re gonna dumb it down and get all churchy, you’re a bit off. Because the tone of the song is kept personal and it specifically addresses to the habit humans have of hurting one another, this adds a lot of weight to the pain that Daly is asking God to lift from his shoulders. Yes, they do throw in a choir as the simple chorus eventually reaches a fever pitch, but what I like about this is that it gives Daly the chance to break off from that refrain while everyone else is singing it and go into a coda that may well sum up all of the relational problems heard throughout the album. “If you’ve love in haste/Thinking only of the cost/Every river leads to land/Every lover to a cross/Your mind and heart at war/And they thrash inside your lips/Like and arrow passing through/Your tongue can kill or it can kiss.” And even that simple chorus gets a response that alludes to Christ in a way that feels poetic rather than pandering: “Who bleeds more?” Indeed, those three words put a lot of suffering in perspective, and they’re a fantastic thought to close the album with.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Love Letters $1.75
Two Hearts $1.25
Better Life $1.50
Glass Heart Hymn $2
You and I $1.25
Letting You Let Go $1.75
Rabbit Holes $1.75
Calm My Soul $1.50
J. T. Daly: Vocals, keyboards, percussion
Chad Howat: Bass, piano, programming
Gavin McDonald: Drums
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Originally published on Epinions.com.