In Brief: At first glance, this appears to be a return to the same-old same-old as a knee-jerk reaction against the negative feedback they got when they tried to change up their sound on Almería. But look a little deeper, and there are some really well-written songs that don’t fit the expected Lifehouse mold. There just aren’t enough of them to win the band any new fans this late in the game.
It can be really frustrating when I see potential in a band whose music tends to get written off as middle-of-the-road, cliched and/or outdated, and they try to respond to those criticisms by following their muse to a new sound or style of songwriting, only to get slapped back down by a tepid response from their fans, radio, and/or their label. One might say these are the drawbacks of trying to make art within the constraints of an industry that only cares about whether you make money (or, more accurately, whether they make money off of your hard work). But still, I’ve seen enough bands break out of the mold to know it’s possible for a band like Lifehouse to do the same.
Lifehouse, as if anyone out there doesn’t already know this, is an alternative pop/rock trio from Malibu, California, probably best known for their first big hit, “Hanging by a Moment”, way back in 2001. I’ve enjoyed their work for the most part ever since those early days, which saw their popularity peak in ways they’ve never quite been able to replicate. I started to get a bit annoyed with them for mostly repeating their safe, sure-fire formulas for radio hits, and then in 2012, Almería happened. It was a departure by design, and it was mostly a downbeat record that I could tell right away most of their fans probably wouldn’t get into, but I appreciated the change, because it showed that they were at least aware they couldn’t ride the predictable post-grunge-pop train into infinity. Perhaps I should have predicted that the changes wouldn’t stick, because now it’s 2015, and after a bit of a break that saw lead singer Jason Wade and bassist/sometimes singer Bryce Soderberg taking a brief stab at solo work before realizing they were stronger together, Lifehouse seems to be promising a return to form with their new album, Out of the Wasteland. Judging from how the band described the new album, yet another unimaginative band photo on the cover, and a title that I can’t help but read as a bit of a diss to a period of their career that no one really understood and that got them dropped from their old label, it seems like we’re back to business as usual on this disc. The first two tracks – both of which are enjoyable in their own right – certainly do nothing to dispel those worries (which were probably the hopes of most of their other fans), as they’re up-tempo Lifehouse-by-the-numbers. Listen to the opening two tracks of any Lifehouse album except for their self-titled and Almería, and you know what you’re getting here.
Appearances can be deceiving, however, because once they get to track three, you start to see some of the ideas emerging that might have shown up on those aborted solo albums, and they don’t sound like typical Lifehouse, and usually this is a good thing. Perhaps it’s the sort of strategy that they should have adopted earlier on, mixing the forays into slightly different genres than we’ve come to expect from the band with the straight-ahead pop/rock stuff. Maybe it’s too little too late in terms of getting most of the world to care about Lifehouse again, but it at least helps my attention span to stay put through the boring and uninspired stuff that could have easily fit on any of their albums from about 2002-2010. When the band doesn’t feel like they have to remain stubbornly faithful to a specific genre or the immediate hooks required of a radio single, they actually demonstrate some decent songwriting chops. I’m not gonna put them up there with the master wordsmiths of the world any time soon, but a few of these tracks make me feel an emotional outpouring that few Lifehouse songs have made me feel since the days of No Name Face. That’s enough for me to look past my biases and have a generally positive attitude towards this record overall, even if for the most part the band is still playing it way too safe.
While this track sounds like almost every Lifehouse album opener that came before it – fast tempo, punchy power chords, powerhouse vocal from Jason Wade delivering a predictable but enjoyable chorus hook – I have to admit it’s a pretty well-written song. It’s a celebration of making it “through hell and back again” and living to tell the tale, which you could view as being about a couple who has weathered the storm and whose marriage is still standing, or the creative partnership between the band members emerging from a period of not knowing what their future holds. It’s easy to imagine that it’s 2001 all over again as the guitars grind away, and that’ll annoy people who never saw what the fuss was about this band in the first place, but they know what works for them and they’re still doing it extremely well; on this track at least, I can give them credit for that.
2. One For the Pain
Rather than going through hell with a loved one at your side, this darker track explores what it feels like to have someone who claims to love you be the one who is putting you through hell. Also not terribly new territory for Lifehouse – but again, it works because Wade’s got the voice to sell it. Just as easily as he can deliver a confident and vaguely spiritual up-tempo, fist-pumping anthem, he can sound like a bitter and dejected man who’s been somebody’s doormat one too many times, and this song finds him in an especially dark place, taking “One for the pain, two to forget, three shots fired – yeah, I should have known better.” He mentions in the verse that “I know you can’t fix crazy”, and maybe it’s a bit of a copout to blame all of your relationship problem on women being crazy, but I do understand that feeling of banging your head against a wall trying to see eye to eye on something where it just seems like you’ll never work it out. The track is passable pop/rock when it probably could stand to be a bit more aggressive – I still enjoy listening to it, but it needs a bit more bite, and Lifehouse isn’t really the type of band to deliver that bite.
Sometimes the most inspired songs get written when the writer least expects it. This piano ballad – not normally a genre where I’d expect amazing things from Lifehouse – was one of those deals, just sort of naturally coming to Jason when he sat down and strummed out a few simple chords (I guess it was originally an acoustic guitar song, but the change to piano certainly works in its favor). There are two distinct halves to this song – one a very simple, pensive admission that a man is carrying too much weight on his shoulders and desperately needs help (the line “There’s too many miles on my bones” stands out here as a rather creative way for a musician to express the weariness of life on the road), and the other a rousing climax of simple mantras: “No more heartache, no more fighting No more fears, only flying”. The second part is essentially the “bridge” of the song, but it breaks convention by never returning to the verse/chorus structure of the first half, and I love it for that, because after the song really takes off (pun intended), it seems wrong to bring it back down to Earth. Longtime fans of the band have compared the song favorably to “Everything”, the gorgeous closing track on No Name Face that is pretty much every hardcore Lifehouse fan’s favorite song, a high water mark that it seemed they might never reach again. I still don’t know if they’ve done that good with this one, but to come up with something that hearkens back to it without sounding like an obvious attempt to copy it is a feat at this stage in their career. I’m not gonna lie, I was damn near moved to tears by the huge emotional release here.
…and then, inevitably, we collapse back to Earth anyway, with a song that means well with all of its futuristic digitized vocals and synthesizer sounds, but that turns out to be a misstep on the level of Smoke & Mirrors‘ “Wrecking Ball”. OK, maybe it’s not that hideous. Sound-wise, I actually appreciate the foray into more electronic territory – they attempted this with “Nobody Listen” on their last album and it worked a little better, largely because Rick Woolsetenhulme‘s drums brought an otherwise robotic song to life, which I could say is something he makes a darn good attempt to here. I’m almost willing to get pumped up and join them on their metaphorical flight “beyond the stars”, until I remember how horribly cheesy such a line as “beyond the stars” really is, and Jason’s lyrics are just full of that sort of stuff here, mining every conceivable “let’s run away from the people and things that hurt us and make a new world just for the two of us” cliche that he can think of, and despite the powerful vocals and a punchy chorus, this thing is just a huge, embarrassing albatross.
5. Firing Squad
I’m having a tough time figuring out what sort of mood the band was going for here. The acoustic guitar in this song seems to glisten against an otherwise unremarkable back drop of typical mid-tempo pop/rock instrumentation, so I’m at once drawn in by the clean, glossy production and put off by it. The lyrics seem to split their time between Jason’s typical “lost in a hazy time warp where nothing makes sense” sort of mood in the verse (if you’ve listened to Lifehouse over the years, you know exactly what I mean here) and a much more loaded analogy in the chorus about someone he cares deeply about being a member of a firing squad that stands ready to execute him. The two just don’t seem to go together, and it takes a song that may have a very interesting and deeply personal story to tell, and masks the meaning of it to the point where it’s just impenetrable.
Every time I see the title of this song and try to recall what it sounds like, I think of the line “I miss you, and I wish you were here” from the rather bland “From Where You Are”, which closed side A of Smoke & Mirrors, and I probably only think that because it’s at the same spot in the tracklisting and both songs are ballads. That’s not fair to a song that departs from Lifehouse’s norm with its delicate and somewhat whimsical mood, putting the rock instrumentation away for a few minutes to focus on finger-picked acoustic guitar and a light but effective string section. It’s so easy for bands to go on auto-pilot in this sort of situation, just strumming boring guitar chords and not letting the strings do anything imaginative, but Lifehouse actually exceeds my expectations a bit with the lilting melody of this song and the more “baroque pop” approach that makes it easy to picture a string quartet playing this song next to the band members in real time (even though I know that’s not usually how these things go in the studio). The lyrics, which beg someone to face up to their habit of running away from reality and promise to be there when she’s burned the rest of her bridges and has no one else to talk to, are passable but not brilliant. It’s the light and playful touch taken by the few instruments in play that really sells it.
If “Wish” felt like it could have been a track from a Jason Wade solo album, then “Stardust” is quite obviously a track from one of Bryce Soderberg’s attempts at the same. He’s sung lead on a few Lifehouse tracks before, though his voice is similar enough to Jason’s that I often don’t know this until well after the fact. Here it’s obvious because his delivery is quite different – he’s got the whole motor-mouth thing going on in the verse, and it fits well with the upbeat rhythm that Rick establishes, plus some of his rhymes are amusing even if his lyrics go back to the corny sci-fi well that “Runaways” drew from. What can I say – when words are rattled off quickly in a way that is rhythmically pleasing to the ear, I can enjoy the sound of all those syllables flying by even if what’s actually being said doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. What’s important here is that the band doesn’t really give us much time to notice that the song is silly. the hand-off from Bryce’s verse to Jason’s chorus is done so smoothly, and the two vocal styles mesh so well with each other, that by the time the song is over, I’m ready to root for Bryce to get the mic a little more often.
Unfortunately we settle back into the mid-tempo doldrums at this point – those looking to rock out can probably just check out at this point (though you’ll miss some truly excellent mellower songs near the end). This is one of those tracks that I feel like every band of Lifehouse’s ilk had to have one or more of on every single one of their albums back when their sound was the “in” thing – just one of those middling filler tracks that sort of ambles on by, not punchy enough to be memorable, not slow or dynamic enough to be dramatic, just sort of thrown on to the album because they had to record a minimum of songs to make the label happy. Stock lyrics about traveling a lot and feeling alone and alienated permeate this song, and I feel like they’re trying to add some whimsy to the proceedings with the synthesizer line that acts as an instrumental hook, but there just isn’t enough gas to make this thing go.
9. Central Park
Slowing things down even further without adding anything attention-grabbing to compensate certainly isn’t going to win back the attention span of those who were tempted to tune out by the last track. This song may as well have gone on Lifehouse’s woefully dull self-titled album, considering how robotic pretty much every aspect of the song is – Jason’s tired, half-there vocals, Rick’s lackadaisical drumming that lacks any sense of syncopation or variation, and whatever the hell Bryce is doing. (I know it’s easy to bag on bass players, but Lifehouse actually has a few songs where the bass really stands out, plus the guy can sing, so come on man, step up and make yourself heard in a few more of these songs, OK?) Jason’s pining about being away from someone for too long because of all those road miles between the two of them, and I guess Central Park is the stock backdrop for his late night navel-gazing, because hey, name-dropping New York City landmarks worked for Mumford & Sons on their latest exploration into irrelevant blandness, so why not?
10. Hurt This Way
If it sounds like I’m giving Lifehouse a lot of grief when they’re trying to express genuine pain and sorrow in some of their songs, it’s only because I know Jason is a talented enough songwriter to really express those themes powerfully when he puts his mind to it. Here, when he abandons the old mush-mouthed mopey alternative rock thing and actually goes for something more details and expressive, it works like a charm. Again, it’s a more acoustic track, and with the upbeat thump of the drum to accompany it, I almost feel like this could have come from some 1980’s movie about a runaway kid spending his life out on the road or something. The reference to his dad in the garage listening to old Bruce Springsteen songs really brings that setting to mind. Jason’s written a few songs about his deadbeat absentee father before, but none of them have been as surprising and effective, because when the band brings in such unusual instruments as the banjo and glockenspiel, suddenly it’s not just a guy moping about his old man beating up his old lady, it’s a guy trying to find the grace and patience to move beyond that horrible example in his own life. It’s an inspiring turn on a topic that could easily veer into a “woe is me” pity party, and the unconventional musical approach sounds more in line with a lot of my favorite indie pop bands than anything I’d ever have expected from Lifehouse.
11. Yesterday’s Son
Also reminding me of a favorite indie band is this song, with its multi-tracked acapella vocal opening and the big, organ-like sound that comes in at the first chorus. (What is that instrument called? I know Arcade Fire uses it, and the way Lifehouse does it here is quite similar to Future of Forestry‘s song “Slow Your Breath Down”, but I can’t recall the name of the thing.) It’s the kind of opening that has me expecting a grand, soft-to-loud dynamic that builds over the course of a song, and Lifehouse doesn’t disappoint, though the climax they come to isn’t the “big rock finish” you’d expect from some of their other songs – it’s more of a percussion-heavy, toe-tapping, feel-good folk/rock sort of anthem. It’s a fitting for a song that feels a lot like the conjoined twin to “Hurt This Way”, since it quite clearly declares in the chorus, “I am not my mother or father/I am not yesterday’s son/I’m not broken, I’m an open highway/With room to run.” The previous song asked the question of whether a man could evolve beyond his childhood hurts; this one responds with a resounding “yes”, and that gives me just the boost I need on those dark days when I wonder if I’m slowly turning into my own dad.
Also a good candidate for the Jason Wade solo project that might have been is this cinematic ballad, which – look, I’m not gonna lie, it’s sappy enough for a Disney movie, but it’s also really darn pretty. All of the band’s usual instrumentation is gone at this point – piano and woodwinds sweetly dominate the last few minutes of the album, and Jason sings a sweet duet with Jordan Whitlock (who isn’t even clearly credited in the album sleeve as far as I can tell – I had to Google a stinkin’ Reddit thread just to get a straight answer from the band on who the heck was singing here) that puts a sweet, gentle bookend on the same theme that “Hurricane” used to open the album – a couple weathering the storms of life and growing older, wiser, and more in love with each other in the process. Depending on your disposition, you’ll either cry happy tears or hurl smelly chunks upon hearing this one. I’m more on the former side of that equation, personally.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
One For the Pain $1
Firing Squad $.75
Central Park –$.25
Hurt This Way $2
Yesterday’s Son $1.75
Jason Wade: Lead vocals, guitars
Bryce Soderberg: Bass, backing vocals
Rick Woolstenhulme, Jr.: Drums, percussion