Artist: The Temper Trap
Album: Thick as Thieves
In Brief: The Temper Trap’s third album reprises pretty much everything they did well on Conditions, minus that album’s hodgepodge feel. Distancing themselves from the more electronic sound of their self-titled second album doesn’t strike me as a huge positive or negative, but I’m mildly disappointed that the band isn’t really adding anything new to their signature style this time around.
Here’s a pretty common trajectory in the life of a rock band:
- Hit debut album
- Experimental and underappreciated second album
- Third album that tries to be like the first, but with diminishing returns
I think it’s pretty easy for both critics and fans to view Australian indie rock act The Temper Trap as a textbook example of that pattern. Their first album got them on the map with the hits “Sweet Disposition” and “Fader”, their second album performed modestly well but overall wasn’t as well-received as their first, and the band took this to heart and tried to course-correct, making their third album more like the popular songs on their first. That all makes sense on paper, but sometimes I wonder if I’m listening for completely different things than most people are. I liked their 2009 debut Conditions when I first heard it, and thought there was more to it beyond its obvious singles (particularly in the intense one-two punch of “Resurrection” and “Science of Fear” near the end), but going back and listening to it years later, it just did not hold up well as an album. It felt all over the place musically, and some of the lyrics were downright embarrassing. Their self-titled 2012 album struck me as much more consistent, trading in some of the indie-rock-meets-U2 approach of their early hits for more of an electropop vibe which I know a lot of their fanbase wasn’t as keen on, but song-for-song it was way more consistent. I ranked that album among my favorites for that year, and looking back I might have been slightly more lenient than I should, since weak lyricism was still a problem there, but my response to it is still quite favorable overall. The Temper Trap is probably never going to be one of my favorite bands, but I figured they were steadily honing their craft and I was excited to hear what direction they’d take next.
Their third attempt, Thick as Thieves, doesn’t really move them forward, but it also doesn’t revisit their old sound as much as the band seems to want to believe it does. They didn’t drop the electronic stuff entirely, but it doesn’t really get much focus here outside of a track or two. Despite the band’s intentions, I’m honestly not hearing a lot of the Conditions sound here – even if you were to merely isolate the record’s two biggest hits and assuming they were trying to capture that lightning in a bottle here, I don’t think they attained it. I don’t want endless clones of “Sweet Disposition” anyway – that’s the kind of song that is so beautiful in its simplicity that it can only really work well once for any given band. There are definitely some stadium-sized rockers with larger-than-life melodies waiting to be unleashed, along with the band’s A-for-effort, C-for-execution attempts at social commentary that seem to keep cropping up. The sound is much more consistent from track to track than it was on Conditions, so superficially, it’s a much more pleasant listen that I think will stand up better to the test of time. But outside of one or two tracks, I’m not really hearing anything that is impressively different for them. It’s like they’ve settled into a default sound that ought to score them some modest hits, and they’re more or less happy with that.
Ironically, the return to a more “live band” sound on this record coincided with the departure of their long-time guitarist, Lorenzo Stilletto. (Was that a stage name? Feels like it should have been.) Lead singer Dougy Mandagi and keyboardist Joseph Greer step admirably into the role, but casual listeners probably won’t notice a whole lot of difference either way. The Temper Trap has a few songs in their past discography with solid riffs, and they manage a few of those here, too, but I don’t feel like they’ve lost anything core to their sound, as rhythm, texture and mood seem to be the real driving forces behind a lot of their material. Mandagi’s smooth falsetto vocals remain the biggest draw, and honestly they’re probably the main thing setting this album’s least memorable songs apart from the bin that most easygoing, throwaway modern pop music gets thrown into. Mandagi’s spiritual beliefs do work their way into the lyrics, sometimes in more subtle ways than others, but The Temper Trap doesn’t classify itself as a “Christian band”, and honestly I hadn’t even picked up on anything specific until reading some of the background information behind the creation of this album. So “vaguely spiritual” is where it seems to land most of the time when he does try to focus on more eternal matters. (I’m not saying that I need him to be more specific; just pointing that out for listeners who are either drawn to or repelled by that sort of stuff.)
I know all of this sounds a bit dismissive for a band that I claim to enjoy, but on a few of these tracks, they do veer a little too close to middle-of-the-road pop for comfort, and given that they had some extremely memorable straightforward pop/rock songs on their last album, it’s not like I’m expecting a ton of innovation in this department. When all is said and done, I’m probably going to remember individual tracks from Thick as Thieves more than the album as a whole years down the road, so that makes it a noticeable step back from The Temper Trap in terms of replayability. My opinion of the band still remains positive overall, but I get the nagging feeling that they’re going to hover somewhere around “just above average” for most of their career if they don’t make a concerted effort to shake things up again at some point.
1. Thick as Thieves
The band definitely struck gold with the title track. From the opening upstroke on the electric guitar, there’s a sinister, sort of spaghetti Western vibe that mixes beautifully with the urgent, marching drums and the airy vocals, creating an atmosphere that is part menacing and part mystique. The stream-of-consciousness lyrics make it hard to tell who is giving us this false reassurance that “They just want us to feel safe and sound”, or what’s being fought against in the chorus, which seems like a call to action for “brothers thick as thieves”. Mood tends to win out over meaning in a lot of this band’s lyrics, so I like that such a strong anthem carries with it such an uneasy sense of restlessness. In every aspect, the band seems to have pushed this song beyond the realm of “safe and sound” in order to make sure it leaves its mark on the listener’s memory, which isn’t something I can say for a lot of the songs that follow it.
2. So Much Sky
A much brighter, happier anthem is much next, starting off with a rousing drum cadence and throwing in a blatantly obvious “audience participation” hook made up of the two most used and abused vowel sounds in rock music history: “Oh-ay-oh-ay-oh!” It ain’t rocket science, but I guess it works. The background of the song, which is largely focused on themes of finding beauty in nature and the resilience of a strong community, was apparently inspired by a few members of the group taking a trip to Tanzania to work with a charity there. The overall tone of it is inspirational, but it doesn’t really have anything profound to say. Just a couple guys wanting to document an experience that had a profound impact on them, I guess. I’ve listened to Christian rock enough to know a when “missionary trip” song like this has had its edges smoothed in order to make it relateable to a massive audience that’s never been to any of these places, and while obviously the intended audience is different in The Temper Trap’s case, that’s basically what happened here. The song, while I do enjoy it a fair amount, is all smile and no teeth.
A glowing, melodic lead guitar melody, and fast-paced drumming modeled after early U2 are the characteristics of this song that keep drawing me back to it. It’s a formula The Temper Trap could crank out in their sleep, since it worked so well for them on the aforementioned “Sweet Disposition”, and they’ve used it a few times since then, though later attempts haven’t been quite as iconic. Here, the lyrics put a darker spin on that style, noting the guilt and heartache a doomed relationship has left on a man, but still falling back on the old adage that it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. “You gotta burn, baby, once a while” is how they put it. Once again, it’s not terribly specific to any one situation, and it just sort of falls into the “general life advice” category. Mandagi sings the hell out of it, though, so you know he’s got some real conviction even if he’s falling short in the articulation department. This seems like an obvious pick for a follow-up single, though that could probably be said for the entire front half of this record, and unfortunately that doesn’t mean all of the songs are as strong as the opening trio.
The next few tracks are the hardest part of the album for me to get through. The frustrating thing about the group backing away from the more electronic sound of their self-titled album is that they seem to have stripped away the wrong things. There aren’t obvious synth or keyboard leads on a lot of these songs, but a few like this one are overly reliant on electronic drums and keyboard ambiance, and the result is annoyingly middle-of-the-road. The tempo and overall tone of this track and the next are so similar that I honestly find myself confusing the two as I think back on the album. In this one, we have a very generic theme of wanting to steal away with a lover to some special place where they can kindle their romance and “Nothing in the world could tear us apart”. The idea of getting lost to save love may be an intentional reference to their earlier song “Love Lost”, but I’m probably giving the band too much credit there. I like Mandagi’s falsetto in the verses here, but it’s nothing that he didn’t do far more impressively on songs like the last album’s “Miracle” that took more sonic chances.
5. Fall Together
Here’s the one that they did choose as a follow-up single. And it’s quite possibly the most dull and tedious song on the record. The programmed drums are clunky, the electronic background effects sound like a watered-down attempt to drag some dubstep wubs kicking and screaming into the land of adult contemporary pop music, and the chorus melody is repetitive and obnoxious despite its easygoing vibe. There’s some tension in the lyrics – two people who are supposed to be in love slowly becoming enemies, yet determining to go down with the ship together rather than splitting up, if I’m reading it right. There’s no tension in the music to support it, though. Just listening casually to the album, it’s not like anything about this song would jump out at you as being offensively bad, but it’s the lack of trying that bothers me here. I’m all for a straightforward but effective pop/rock hook, but come on guys, give it some real stakes like you did in the title track.
Now this is more like it. The bass and drums get a real workout here, jolting the album out of the mid-tempo doldrums and reminding us that the performers actually have some fight left in ’em. This was one of my early favorites solely based on my reaction to the sound of it – lurching, seething, almost seems like it wants to jump out and scare you during the instrumental bridge. Then I started paying more attention to the lyrics and I realize that they kind of fail to connect the dots between the verse and the chorus. The verse laments the dullness of the daily routine, just becoming a mindless cog in a machine too big to care about us, that sort of thing. We’re being set up for a good reason to get mad and get the hell even. Then the chorus comes along and it’s literally nothing but “Feels so good to be alive.” What the actual hell, guys? I mean, it sounds amazing, but how’d you get from A to B? Even if I take this as irony, it’s not wry enough to make an ironically stated untruth really hit where it hurts. Great performance here, but I had to downgrade this one from the “A” grade I had originally given it once I realized what an incomplete thought it was expressing.
Side B of the record opens with another middle-of-the-road, feel-good sort of song. At least the inspiration for the song (a rural area not too far from the band’s hometown of Melbourne, Australia that is apparently one of those places beleaguered city folk like to go to get away from it all) is more transparent and specific to the place they’re writing about this time, unlike in “So Much Sky”, which could really be about anywhere. I still get the nagging feeling that the lightly bouncy guitar riff and the overall mood of the song is something I’ve heard from a million indie Britpop-type bands. The song would still be quite likeable despite that, if not for the really awkward rhyme of “Riverina” with “I was calling to ya” and “Everyone can hear ya” in the chorus. I figure you can only get away with setting up “ya” as a rhyme if you’ve got a much better internal rhyme in the preceding syllables – Leonard Cohen got this right on his classic song “Hallelujah”, for example. But hey, nobody asked me for my tips on songwriting etiquette. So I’ll just call this one a draw and move on.
8. Summer’s Almost Gone
From here to the end of the album, I feel like band starts taking a few more chances again. Nothing earth-shattering, but I feel like we’ve finally thrown off the shackles of stuff a song is required to do to be a potential radio single, and the band is free to be a little more melancholy, take their time to build a song to an emotional climax, that sort of thing. I honestly didn’t remember much about this song after the first few listens, because it’s probably the least hook-driven thing on the record, but I like how it gives Mandagi the sonic space to really feel the loss of someone he apparently thought he was saying goodbye to temporarily, who never made good on their promise to return. I feel a bit of the same combination of sadness and stubborn hopefulness that worked so well in “I’m Gonna Wait”, except here he seems to have finally resigned himself to stop waiting and move on. It hurts like hell. There’s an angular guitar riff that lives the song up a bit as it starts to get going, that adds a bit more urgency to an otherwise subdued performance, and it’s an interesting touch. This’ll never be one of the band’s standout tracks but it feels very genuine for them, very un-forced, and I enjoy it for that reason.
Nothing that the band has done since “Science of Fear” quite evokes the same sense of dire urgency as that track, but this one comes close. There’s a lot of torment in these lyrics – talk of the devil, and caged minds, and people trapped in a spider’s web, and the band communicates a sense of despair quite well here, somehow managing to make that mood believable within the framework of the shimmery alt-rock that they’re known for. This one’s been cited by many listeners as a standout track on this album, and even though it took a while for me to realize why that was (probably because I was distracted by the more direct, but less meaningful, musical gut-punch of “Alive”), I’ve definitely come to agree with them. The bridge, which gets repeated at the end of the song, may contain the record’s most arresting lyric: “Unmarked are the tombstones/But the family still cares/There were so many words/I should have never kept.”
10. What If I’m Wrong
While I was pretty much raised on Christian rock, and I’m still a Christian after all these years (just a lot less infatuated with the music that tends to be marketed to us), I’ve actually found that I’m more intrigued by songs that find the songwriter asking tough questions about what they believe, than the ones the reiterate some sort of simple creed or assurance of belief that I’ve heard repackaged time and time again. The existential quandary that Mandagi finds himself in here – wondering how so many others could seem to have found peace and solace in beliefs diverging quite a bit from his own – feels at first like it should be at odds with the floating, almost syrupy synths that might as well be the flapping of passing angels’ wings. That is to say, this is not a rock song and it doesn’t pretend to be. It would have fit perfectly into the more electronic self-titled album, and I’d have been totally fine with that. It works for me because of the vulnerability of his falsetto vocals in the verse, slipping back down into “regular voice” for the chorus which simply finds him confronting himself about what how he could handle it if he found out after all this time that the beliefs he’d held for his entire life were wrong. He doesn’t really answer this question, but I don’t think he needs to for the song to be a powerful one. People of faith, if they’re at it long enough, can often hit this “wall” of sorts where they find themselves questioning everything, even when they really wish they didn’t have to, and having been through that and knowing how harrowing those thoughts can be, I appreciate the honesty and bravery it takes to write a song like this. I really love how it ends, stripping away the slick studio sound and leaving Mandagi alone with just his fragile voice and acoustic guitar, as if to give us a window into the song’s beginnings as a demo. That trick’s become a bit of a cliche these days, but it works really well in this case.
11. Ordinary World
The record ends on a bit of an unsettling note, with the band attempting a bit of a post-apocalyptic vibe – nothing too sonically scary, but it’s definitely hinted at in the lyrics which talk of a run-down old sugar mill and a glaring absence of people in the vicinity, and stating “It’s been years since 2051” without really telling us what happened in that fateful year. The drums are a little more robotic than normal, despite having more of a “live drum” sound, and even though the pace of the song seems like it’s going to be a bit tedious at first, it really works for me once the angry guitars chime in, leading to a climax that is more chilling than anything I can remember the band doing in the past. As with pretty much all of their songs, I’d like a little more back story here. Did humanity die out because we were too busy ignoring the ways in which we were destroying the world? Are the “lovers in an ordinary world” the last survivors of the environmental apocalypse, or just some unfortunate schlubs who had their heads too far up in the clouds to notice they were basically complicit to mass suicide? The questions posed by these occasionally detailed, yet still frustratingly vague lyrics are staggering. It’s not the magnum opus of a song that the band probably wanted it to be, but it’s a sudden and jarring note to end the record on, and I appreciate that the band doesn’t seem to mind going a little unorthodox on their closing tracks.
The bonus edition of this album comes with three bonus tracks – “Providence”, “On the Run”, and “Closer”, and while I won’t go into as much detail about those, I will say that “Providence” is quite enjoyable just due to be another classic example of The Temper Trap’s spirited, up-tempo, kinda-80s sound, and it makes excellent use of the backing vocals as they play off of the load. “Closer” will probably get the most lyrical attention of the three, due to it being inspired by the story of two allegedly wrongly convicted prisoners on death row, trying to face death with dignity rather than fear. The potential for social commentary was higher there than what the song accomplished, I think. Still, all three of these songs are easily stronger than at least three of the cuts that actually made it onto the main album, so I honestly don’t know what the band’s logic was for picking the songs everyone would get to hear versus just the diehards. Go check ’em out if you found the rest of the record enjoyable, I guess.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Thick as Thieves $2
So Much Sky $1
Fall Together $0
Summer’s Almost Gone $1
What If I’m Wrong $1.75
Ordinary World $1.25
Dougy Mandagi: Lead vocals, rhythm guitar
Joseph Greer: Lead guitar, keyboards, backing vocals
Toby Dundas: Drums, backing vocals
Jonathon Aherne: Bass, backing vocals
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
MORE USEFUL LINKS: