In Brief: Sometimes it’s lush and orchestral. Sometimes it’s surprisingly rhythmic. Even when it’s as mellow and moody as you might expect from one of the world’s most cautious rock bands, it’s quite beautifully textured if you just listen closely enough. Ixora is a quiet but commendable comeback for a band I didn’t realize I would miss so much.
I can’t say that I was terribly surprised when Copeland announced their breakup in early 2010. I’d been following the band for a few records, and my initial skepticism about their sound lacking real musical muscle or much of anything intriguing was solidly disproven by In Motion and Eat, Sleep, Repeat – two records that I now hold in high regard as strong examples of an indie rock band in the mid-2000s not wanting to settle on a single sound. Those records and their unexpected swan song, You Are My Sunshine, weren’t always consistent listens, but they demonstrated a band that was just as willing to let the guitars and percussion sounds roar as they were to retreat into their quiet little corner and let idiosyncratic drum loops and keyboard sounds drive their sound. A lot of their more curious and ultimately memorable work came from those experimental tendencies that cropped up on their last two records, but it also seemed like the band was threatening to spin out in so many directions that it wouldn’t be long before musical restless impeded on their ability to work together.
Now that may not have been the specific reason that the band cited for parting ways (truthfully, I can’t remember if they even gave a reason), but I also figured that Aaron Marsh was one of those songwriters who wouldn’t remain unproductive for long. He had honed his craft producing his own band’s albums and working with fellow Floridian Stephen Christian of Anberlin on his side project known as Anchor & Braille. Eventually, he apparently hit the point where enough good songs were just coming out of him that they couldn’t not be heard. And with the other former members of the band all affable to picking up where they left off, Copeland was apparently the perfect vehicle for delivering those new songs. So we got a surprise reunion announcement in early 2014, and an album curiously titled Ixora, which dropped in the middle of the holiday season, a time of year when new non-seasonal music tends to be easily overlooked. I enjoyed it at the time, but I saw it as one of the band’s lesser offerings, and I didn’t really dig deeper into it until the new year rolled around. It just seemed like one of those records that didn’t deserve a snap judgment – Copeland’s music has always had to “settle in” for a while before I really know what to make of it.
Ixora is a difficult album to summarize. Stylistically, it often resembles You Are My Sunshine, just with far more introverted moments and only a handful of up-tempo tunes. It’s only a “rock album” in the deconstructive sense, which is actually one of the most surprising things about it. At first, you hear a lot of hushed acoustic tracks, a bit of fooling around with electronic sounds, and an orchestra popping up here and there, and you’re tempted to think that Copeland is a band in name only. Then it starts to hit you how crisp the guitars and drums and bass (and of course the band’s old standby, the piano) are when they do show up, and how anything not essential to the song seems to have been stripped away, making those core instruments of rock music more meaningful when they play an important role in a song. A few tracks that seem stillborn on first listen come to life midway through, and at times it’s as if they’re trying to capture the musical equivalent of patience, at least insofar as this can be done with 3-to-5 minute ballads and pop songs. At 10 tracks (11 on some editions – more on that later), it’s not overly long, but it’s not a record that breezes by. (Compare and contrast with the warm and fluffy sounds, the woe-is-me breakup ballads, and the half-assed overall length of Coldplay‘s latest if you like.) It’s a record that’s best enjoyed through headphones, assuming you have a quiet evening to pause and reflect on it, rather than expecting immediate entertainment from it. (Not that a few of these songs aren’t total ear candy. That’s a place Copeland likes to visit from time to time, but it’s not where they live.)
Thematically, the constant forward flow of time seems to bear down heavily upon this record. Marsh seems to have written a lot of these songs after going through a period of losing – or perhaps almost losing – someone important to him, and the songs that came from it seek to defy that powerful one-way stream, so obsessed are they with stopping or slowing down or reversing time, or at least capturing a few of those precious moments in amber before they slip away for good. Lots of earnest young songwriters with their hearts on their sleeves like to sing about “forever”. But Marsh’s take on wanting to find that little bit of heaven and relive it in some sort of Groundhog Day loop is interesting because Ixora really allows you to feel the pros and cons of that obsession. There are the expected, fluffy, overwhelmingly rose-colored love songs where the orchestra swells up alongside Marsh’s irresistible falsetto and you just know that this gets the waterworks going for a good chunk of the audience, perhaps even the singer himself. But at times, I almost feel a great sadness for this idea of “happily ever after” that might be better in theory than in practice. And it’s that tension between fantasy and reality that keeps me intrigued by this record, even when I think that musically, it might be too soft-spoken or maybe a bit too heavy-handed for its own good. I still consider most of their other records to be more musically accomplished, but this might be the one where they take a singular idea and build upon it in a satisfying way throughout every single song.
1. Have I Always Loved You?
The opening track feels very much like it was ripped from the pages of a teenager’s journal, with its language of dreamers and castles and a lovely lady “in the whitest dress I’d known”. That’s not a criticism, because its notion of the world standing still fits with my whole theory about this record trying to capture moments in time that you can’t go back and relive. With its simple acoustic guitar, its sensitive flutes, Marsh’s breathy “aaah-aah”s, and the rest of the band only really showing up during the second half of an already short song, it feels more like a brief awakening in the middle of the night than the true beginning of the story. But a lot of Copeland’s best work has been somewhat disorienting to me at first. Just when I’m tempted to think this is a half-finished cutesy love song without a whole lot of depth to it, I’m reminded that the tense is different than the usual song that talks about being in love now and/or forever. The question is “Have I always loved you?” As in, “Has this been going on and on throughout history and we’re pre-destined to keep finding each other?” Or, if you’re not feeling quite so metaphysical, “Have I loved you since before I knew how to identify that I felt that way?” A simple word tacked on at the end may well change the entire meaning of it: “Have I always loved you alone?” That opens up a whole host of questions: Has he been truly faithful to her? Or has he loved her only from afar, in the loneliest way possible? Less than three minutes of music, and already there’s quite a bit to analyze.
Now this one might be quintessential Copeland, right off the bat. And yet, it’s also strange and new. The piano melody that leads it off is tranquil yet it seems to inspire movement, and it’s carefully matched by an electronic beat that might seem stiff and cold if not for the majestic ocean vista slowly opening up around it. (There are French horns in this thing. SWOON.) Marsh opens the song with what might be one of his most captivating lyrics yet: “Is it the sweetest song I’ve ever heard?/You’re singing in your native tongue/And how I long to be there within your words/How I long to be your steady drum.” There’s something so wonderfully intimate about that analogy of wanting to make a beautiful song with someone, that I don’t really mind when the rest of the song adopts the well-worn cliche of love being like drowning in a vast ocean. The song is very personal, going so far as to call his lover by name: “Nora, close your eyes, I’m going under.” And yet it has its own weird pop appeal that starts to sneak in as the live drums, the remarkably fluid bass, and a frenetic guitar melody all add their individual pieces to the puzzle. The best part is that just when I think the song’s winding down, Jonathan Bucklew jumps right back in with an electrifying drum breakdown, which sounds very much like something MuteMath would do (and by the way, there’s another band that’s been taking far too long between albums!), and since that’s about the last thing I’d expect from Copeland at this point, it’s an absolute delight.
3. I Can Make You Feel Young Again
I was pretty certain for a while there that the first half of this song was flat out awkward. Part of it’s because the previous one ends so abruptly and just drops you into the stillness of this one: Just vocals, seeming almost like a stream of consciousness, accompanied by nothing but faint keyboards until a rather loose drum beat comes stumbling in. It seems almost like the band’s feeling their way through this one on the fly, but just as I’m wondering how I could ever find that awkward rhythm memorable, there are these little bits of guitar and keyboard that gradually pull together and almost threaten to become actual hooks, and now the little baby of a song is walking and talking upright, at least until it collapses back into a mushier rhythm for the chorus. It’s all pretty weird, as if they’re defying everything that would make me consider a song “catchy”, but then I suppose it’s a bit of a feat that they managed to make me like it in the end. When they pull the orchestra in much later in the song, suddenly it all makes sense, with a maelstrom of forlorn strings and pounding timpani swirling around the band, turning that uneasy, swaying melody into something sturdy and memorable. For a song that promises to snatch youth and long life from the clutches of a comatose, near-dead state, it actually makes a whole lot of sense. And I feel like I’ve only begun to fully appreciate the lyrics, which may be full of lofty and unfulfillable promises like “I can make you feel nothing at all for the years/That led you here/Now all your tears that have fallen will never show”, but there’s something very real and visceral in their image of being adrift on a stormy sea, and I really feel like the guy means it when he says he’d pretty much give her his lungs to keep her alive if he could.
This track may well be the bleeding heart at the center of the record, considering how earnest and how painfully sad Aaron sounds as he sings out over a lone piano about a woman who not only broke his heart, but who seems to have frozen him out of her entire life, as if they had never met. That’s the straightforward interpretation, at least. The more fanciful interpretation, based on oddball lyrical bits such as “You can see my grey has faded”, make me think it’s a song about going back in time and trying to fix whatever went wrong, only to further screw things up and wipe the future these two were supposed to have together out of existence. (I’m just gonna go with that one, because I’m a sucker for a good time travel story.) What could have been a captivating song even if it were a lone man and his piano becomes something entirely different as Copeland once again pulls off a slick transition from “solo singer/songwriter” to “symphonically-leaning indie rock band with massive feelings to express”, as this song’s big finish milks every last little drop of cinematic goodness that there is to be found in its despairing melody. There’s even a lovely little moment to pause and reflect at the end of this song, as an ambient outro gives way to a final refrain from the string section, which feels a lot like something I might have heard from Sigur Rós during one of their less dark and doomy phases.
Admittedly, that gorgeous outro might be a bit of a wasted transition, as jarring as it to go from its lush beauty to the mechanical beat that thumps and scratches throughout most of this song. Not that I mind, since this is one of my favorite tracks on the record, and once again the band proves themselves adept at mixing their more recent love of electronica with the baroque pop undertones that have permeated a lot of their best work. You can hear it in the festive bells and glockenspiel that cling-clang along in perfect time at this song’s busiest moments. A tender kiss shared in a beautiful, flowery place is the moment that this song seeks to preserve, even though the icy programmed bits keep threatening to creep in and ravage its picturesque spring landscape. I’ve heard Copeland completely abandon live drums for electronic percussion on a few tracks before, but I don’t think I’ve ever been as enthralled by it as I am here. (There is a tambourine, I guess, if you want to be a stickler about it.) It’s weird, and it’s definitely one of the most experimental things on this record, but I’m a sucker for a good rhythm, and this curious, almost morse-code like pattern that sounds like it was rescued from a trash heap of scratchy sounds that nobody expected to fit in anywhere on a Copeland record certainly fits the bill.
The back half of this record is somewhat sleepy in comparison to a front half that was mostly mid-tempo, but full of interesting twists and turns and climaxes. For the longest time, this track felt like the lull in the middle of the record that I would get impatient with, much like how “Strange and Unprepared” felt a bit out of place and understated in the otherwise solid back half of You Are My Sunshine. It’s one of those reserved but melancholy piano ballads that sounds like it could have come from a sad old music box (with a bit of muted backmasking underneath it, which brings back memories of when I first realized what a lovely little song “The Last Time He Saw Dorie” was), and the lyrics are all about Aaron yearning for some sense of normalcy. He actively describes a long life with the woman he loves as “Every day it’s the same old thing”, with that “same old thing” entailing her waiting with open arms at home, the two of them singing each other songs, and basically being cutesy but boring old married people. It’s innocent and perhaps overly idealistic, certainly nothing that should have been the target of my ire, but for some reason this one struck a nerve at first. It’s probably because it pokes little holes in that notion of “happily ever after” meaning things stay more or less the same. Maybe that’s how it looks to someone on the outside who isn’t in a long-term committed relationship, but having been married for nearly ten years now, regarding those things as “ordinary” and knowing they would never change almost feels like a grim life sentence. I think that can be the case even though I genuinely still love the person I’m with – because we’re both still human beings with an appetite for exploration and adventure, and even though we’ve settled down with each other, you can’t stop growing or trying new things. That probably isn’t even territory that the songwriter meant to go into, but that’s one of those fears we middle-aged married folk deal with sometimes – what if that’s it and there’s nothing new around the corner? While I can’t say the song is all that amazing on a musical level, it honestly made me feel something pretty visceral, so I have to admit that’s an accomplishment in its own right.
7. Like a Lie
This song, which very, very gently flirts with R&B for the first time in the Copeland catalogue that I can recall, feels like a bit of a slap in the face once I realize what it’s about. I don’t mean that it’s an affront to me as a listener – rather, it’s an admission that Aaron is in a relationship with someone he’s not really sure he loves. I suppose that’s how a lot of us start out relationships, to be honest, unless we’re the starry-eyed “love at first sight” types. But it still feels incredibly cold when he upfront admits, “It feels like a lie when I hold you”. This seems terribly out of place given how nearly every song leading up to it has been positively dripping with genuine affection for someone he loves, or else pained laments over losing her. But it gives me the sense that he’s trying to move on and let his heart love another, and it just isn’t time yet – he’s trying to fast-forward the clock and get over it before his heart has truly healed, and that only ends up hurting someone else in the process. The indifferent mood of the lyrics isn’t helped by the trance-like nature of the song, the almost bored tone in which Marsh sings it (though I’ll admit it’s appropriate), and the rather minimalistic groove sounding like it’s struggling to find a good chorus hook to wrap itself around. Not that there aren’t plenty of interesting textural things going on in the background here, but it definitely feels like the band might have second-guessed themselves one time too many by taking such a minimal approach with a song that sounds like it would work better with more of a sinister groove, to really drive home how messed up the whole thing is.
Wow, now we’re suddenly back to declaring “Forever yours”? Even in its gentlest moments, this album’s got some serious mood whiplash going on. But it could be that he’s just pining for what he once had, and that inability to let go is what’s wrecking his not-quite-ideal current situation. More than any other song on the album, this one seems obsessed with reaching across that unbridgeable chasm of time and once again existing in that ideal state of young love. The band seems to play with the notion of time being fluid on this one, starting out with a lazily pretty little melody that bloops around in 3/4 time as bongos gently keep the beat, and little snippets of Aaron’s vocals seem to detach and echo off into the cold night like glowing fireflies. The chorus, much like the ones that used to startle me on “The Grey Man” and “On the Safest Ledge”, switches into 4/4 time and is decidedly “rockier”, with the guitars and drums bursting forward as he strains to hang on to some fleeting memory of his lost love: “In a storm of quiet voices, you’re the only one that I can never find.” Quite unexpectedly, she answers him, as guest vocalist Steff Keoppen appears right the heck out of nowhere in the bridge, bringing voice to his mental projection of her wanting him back just as badly as he wants her. Copeland has used this trick quite effectively on past albums – also with female vocalists who I’ve otherwise heard nothing from, but whose performances are beautiful and effective enough that I really ought to remedy that. As tragically romantic as this all is, Marsh asks a question of himself that may well sum up the entire record: “Are we just fooling ourselves, living in the moment?” (Fun little footnote: “Chiromancy” is not, as I originally thought, a form of magic that allows one to manipulate time. It’s another world for palmistry, or basically fortune-telling. So there’s still a similar idea of wanting to predict the future, but the difference from my original interpretation is that he can’t control that future. Plus, the word “Chiromancer” has “romance” hidden inside it, and I’m probably pointing out the obvious there, but I still think it’s cool.)
9. World Turn
This one competes with “Ordinary” in terms of which track is more bare-bones. This one might win the title at first, since the acoustic guitar and Aaron’s voice are so faint that you almost think he had woken up in the middle of the night and started recording a demo in the next room, while the soft sound of rain falling outside is barely in the background. The strumming, if you could even call it that, is done at such a slow pace that the song seems to already have one foot in the grave. And of all things, there’s a mournful saxophone that comes in at the second verse, as if some busker out in the street overheard his anguish and decided to offer a little sympathy. (Have we reached a point where it’s OK to use a saxophone unironically? Because this makes a pretty good case for it, as odd of a fit as it may seem in such a stripped-down song.) This feels like one of Copeland’s most fatalistic and despairing songs, at least if you interpret lines like “And you felt the world turn its back on you” or “And the waves will just keep crashing on your back until you’re finally covered over” the way I do. He seems defeated, doomed to live out the rest of his days alone. Unless drowning in that ocean isn’t such a bad thing after all. Remember “Disjointed”? Remember how eager he was to go under in the reckless, romantic days of his youth? Because there’s a fleeting moment at the end where the other members of the band seem to quietly gather around him, and instead of bringing the song to a feverish climax, the electric guitar and keyboards seem to envelop the sad song in a sense of peace, as if they’re sad for the guy, but relieved to help him finally learn how to let go.
10. In Her Arms You Will Never Starve
The warmth and confidence with which this final track closes out the album seems to suggest an alternate ending far removed from the sad but peaceful release of “World Turn”. Here, the love of his life is lifted up as an unwavering source of shelter, encouragement, and affection, and the depths of the ocean turn out to be the warmth of her embrace. “In her arms you will never starve/You will never freeze/And when the world is hard/You can fall asleep there.” It builds itself up very carefully, as most Copeland songs are wont to do, bringing us back around to those same fanciful flutes that were sprinkled into the opening track, as if to suggest that the naive teenager’s dream finally came true. We might have Schrödinger’s love story on our hands here, for all I know, but since the album wraps up on a very long coda of that encouraging refrain overlapping with the question, “What if you can’t turn back when you’re finally tired of running?” (It’s musically similar to the verse/chorus overlap of “When You Thought You’d Never Stand Out” at the end of Eat, Sleep, Repeat, though I think that one pulls it off a bit more convincingly.) It’s all very open-ended. Perhaps it sheds some light on the moment of decision-making that sparked the entire crisis that led to this record being written, and this song is a beginning, not an ending, with his choice to stay or go leading to all of the various scenarios and fond memories and not-so-fond half-hearted feelings that have been explored throughout.
11. Like I Want You
I’m confused about this bonus track for a few reasons. One, its lyrics are listed in the liner notes even though the song isn’t actually on the CD. Two, I’m not sure where it goes in the narrative. Three, it’s bizarrely repetitive. The orchestra, which is the driving force of this slow-burner for its first few minutes, is heavy on the horns and woodwinds, and as lovely as it’s been throughout the record. And Steff Keoppen is brought back for another duet vocal – in fact, she ends up singing the majority of the song in its second half while Aaron’s vocals are little more than a vaguely worded lament: “You’re leaving like I want you/Like I ever did.” The rest of the band joins up roughly where she does, getting us back into that sort of “stumbling trance” mood from “I Can Make You Feel Young Again”, though it’s not quite as lackadaisical this time around. All of this is pretty in its own subtle way, but it feels like a reprisal of cards that the band had already played to greater effect elsewhere in the record. It doesn’t do a whole lot for me as a finale or even a postscript.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Have I Always Loved You? $1
I Can Make You Feel Young Again $1.25
Like a Lie $.75
World Turn $1
In Her Arms You Will Never Starve $1
Like I Want You $.75
TOTAL WITH BONUS TRACK: $14.25
Aaron Marsh: Lead vocals, keyboards, guitar, bass, programming, trombone, percussion
Bryan Laurenson: Guitar, keyboards
Stephen Laurenson: Guitar, keyboards, programming
Jonathan Bucklew: Drums
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: