Copeland – Blushing: “Do I come off crazy?” No, more like colorless.

Artist: Copeland
Album: Blushing
Year: 2019
Grade: B-

In Brief: While all Copeland records require patience at first, this one just isn’t standing out to me nearly as much as the similarly slower and more experimental material on Ixora or You Are My Sunshine. The better tracks certainly establish a mood of being in a dream/state existential crisis that permeates the album, but for every beautifully textured slow-burner, there’s another track that feels like its melody never gets off the ground. Blushing is a reasonably good artistic statement, but a bit of a difficult listen.


I’ve had such a weird relationship with Copeland over the years. My first impressions of the band were largely negative, and in retrospect it was completely unfair of me to judge them based on a short festival set when I was impatient for more energetic bands like Mae and Relient K to take the stage. I didn’t know at the time that their live sound wasn’t really the best representation of a band that relied more on texture and careful layering in the studio to communicate a mood or idea than they did on conventional melody and force. This became much more clear to me upon first hearing their album Eat, Sleep, Repeat, which I pretty quickly became obsessed with even though my next time seeing them live as an opening act for Switchfoot didn’t do much to change my mind about them being rather so-so on stage. Calling them a “rock” band is almost a misnomer – they’ve certainly got the instrumentation of a rock band, and on their first few albums it might have been a more appropriate descriptor. (I’d have said “piano rock” because even in a lot of their more straightforward rock songs, the piano was and still is a common fixture.) But nowadays they’re just as likely to get lost in a maze of keyboards, hazy layers of ambiance, and claustrophobic percussion. They still have both a lead and rhythm guitarist, but these instruments are generally used for melodic flavor rather than to lay down big riffs or hooks, or play conventional solos. They’re a very introverted band, and I’ve learned to be OK with the consequence that their albums can take a long time to get into.

They can also take a long time to make, at least if their latest work Blushing is any indication. Their last album was 2014’s Ixora – already a bit of a challenging rumination on aging and the remnants of old relationships lost to the ravages of time, that took the band quite a while to pull together after having broken up in 2010 and regrouped at some point in the following years to work on it. I honestly expected nothing further past that point, as I generally don’t with bands that reunite to put out a single album and then go mostly silent again. But Copeland had been quietly working away at their next project over the years, I guess, and at some point it seems like they decided to lean into all of their idiosyncrasies and make the most Copeland-esque album they could come up. The piano is still prominent. A few tracks begin with a deceptive, gloomy backdrop that suddenly breaks forth into a dense wall of drums. Rhythms are often tricky to follow – when there’s a strong backbeat to grab hold of to begin with. Sometimes an entire song can feel like it was constructed largely from drum loops and other samples that lead singer Aaron Marsh decided to rather sleepily vocalize on top of. They’re not a full-fledged ambient or electronic band, so I often struggle to classify their music because “indie rock” doesn’t quite cut it, and “dream pop” implies something a little more, well dreamy. Copeland certainly establishes the feeling of being stuck in a dreamlike state on many of these tracks, but the mood is so insular that it’s like dreaming of an empty landscape that the set designer or graphic artist or whoever forgot to populate before dropping a man’s subconscious mind into it. It’s a strange album – just as their last few albums were pretty strange, I guess, but this one seems especially stubborn in terms of giving up its goods despite how patient I am as a listener. It’s one of those records where I find myself liking the idea of it more than the actual experience of listening to it. (Have I said that about Copeland before? They’ve had a few songs in the past that I’ve probably described similarly.)

The decision to release Blushing on Valentine’s Day 2019 was a new one. In the age of digital music, independent bands are of course free to unleash music on the general public whenever they see fit, but usually the convention is to release new albums on Fridays. Blushing came out on a Thursday. I can only assume that the release date was somehow significant to the content of the record, an idea which is enforced by the image of a couple kissing on the cover. The color scheme makes these figures a bit difficult to make out (no pun intended), and the image appears to have the colors split as though it were meant to be in 3-D, or else someone is experiencing double vision. It fits the album’s general mood of not quite being sure what is real or whether the protagonist of these songs is in his right mind. While there are certainly some lovely musical passage with an air of mystique to them that could inspire romance for listeners who are into that sort of thing (and I consider myself such a listener), the subject matter of many of the songs seems more focused on some sort of an existential or religious personal crisis that keeps the listener at an emotional distance from everyone around him, including the woman he loves (or wants to love). This is an interesting angle on what otherwise might be a set of forlorn love songs, but it gets sabotaged quite a bit by the drearier stretches of the album, when Aaron Marsh’s lovely, fragile voice seems to play against its own strength. He sounds downright bored on several tracks, where the melodies seem to ooze forth slowly and the notes barely change, and he’s singing his much less enchanting lower register. I get that the band’s aware of its own commonly used tropes at this point and may be seeking to subvert them in some way, but taking your singer’s most effective weapon away from him for several minutes at a time isn’t a great way to do this. It results in more moments where I’m just plain sitting there waiting for the next track to start up already, than I can remember experiencing on any of their prior albums.

I was originally going to give this one a grade in the “C” range, honestly. But it didn’t seem fair to say Copeland had done merely average work on this album when I do still enjoy or at least respect a lot of their attention to detail on this one. Their lyrics, even when individual songs are rather minimal, are still the kind that can inspire my brain to spin off entire storylines based around what the characters in them might be experiencing. That’s a strength that really enriched my experience when listening to Ixora, and it’s why I’m giving Blushing a little benefit of the doubt even though I’m writing this before fully digging into the individual lyrics on each song. That’s why I do the song-by-song breakdown, tedious as it can sometimes be for me to write – I want to be forced to consider the individual ingredients of each song, what the band was at least trying to communicate, and what might not have stood out to me when I was attempting to take the entire record in as one singular experience. Ultimately, I still want Blushing to hold together as a unified story with a beginning and end in a way that I’m not entirely sure it was designed to. But an album that I’m curious enough about to keep going back to and trying to unravel a story, even when it feels like an incomplete or more impressionistic one, is better than a middle-of-the-road album that is superficially catchy but takes zero chances. So Copeland deserves to be in the “B” range at least for that. Now let’s go forth and see if I can figure out what else I’ve been missing here.

INDIVIDUAL TRACKS:

1. Pope
The opening track, which was also the album’s first single, is the one song I’m definitely comfortable calling an instant classics. Like most new things from Copeland, it took a few tries for me to fully get into it, but this one came out late last year, so I was certain I loved it by the time the album dropped. It’s an ideal blend of soft and surreal textures, intricate rhythms, and dense layering, ranging from the tranquil opening of wandering piano chords and Aaron’s sweet falsetto, to the full-bodies chorus, which is driven by relentless drums, bass and a lovely string arrangement. These elements drift in an out of the song as Aaron seems to struggle with the notion of whether the entire world around him is just an illusion. “Could you be my love until I can prove that this world is not real?” he begs over and over in the chorus. He sings the song as if in a dream state, and at a few points there’s a whispering female voice, beckoning him to wake up and get going because “I don’t want to be rushed”, but also expressing genuine curiosity: “Did you dream about anything?” This one gives me the impression that after all these years of pining for lost loves, or loves he could never be with in the first place, he’s writing from the perspective of having finally found one, but being too insulated in whatever crisis of belief he’s going through, to the point where her very real presence in the room seems to be distant, like something from a far off memory. Why is the song called “Pope”? I have no idea; my best guess is that the poetry of Alexander Pope somehow inspired it, because it sure as heck ain’t about the guy who runs the Catholic church.
Grade: A+

2. Lay Here
The “Copeland slow jam” is a type of song that seems to have emerged on the band’s last few albums, as they’ve drifted farther away from conventional indie rock arrangements and gotten more and more lost in a maze of programmed drums and keyboard sounds. Songs like these tend to have a bumping rhythm superficially resembling something you might hear from an R&B artist, but the approach tends to be more low-key, even a bit icy, definitely not something I’d construe as flirty or sexy. That’s not a knock on the band, since they seem to be digging at the raw emotions behind a relationship rather than just celebrating the physical aspects of it with songs like these. But it can make such a song feel more robotic, and as a result it’ll be slow to reveal its charms. I ultimately ended up liking this song about a man asking his lover to just lay down with him, forego the physical intimacy for the night, and just talk through all of their worries and fears instead. This is a form of intimacy that is important to a long-term relationship, and I can definitely relate to Aaron when he sings “You know I can’t sleep with my head like that”, because he’s not the kind of guy who can just turn off his anxieties like flipping a switch. Eventually this song brings in the live drums for a bigger finish, but it’s still one of the more subdued tracks on the record. Not a personal favorite, but it helps you to get a better idea of the record’s overall pacing.
Grade: B

3. As Above, So Alone
This song pulls a neat trick, letting you think it’s going to be another slow, atmospheric piece at the beginning, but not too far in, the drums and bass pick up, and it turns out to be the most up-tempo thing on the record. It’s still quite lovingly textured, with little bits of synth and backmasked sounds coming and going, and the raw bass and drums once again standing out against the more synthetic elements. But let’s just say it’s more of a “Not Allowed” or a “Lavender” rather than a “No One Really Wins”, in terms of what kind of up-tempo approach we’re talking about here. This song seems to have come from a place where two people in a relationship aren’t really communicating, and the guy’s trying to reassure himself that she still loves him even though she never says it out loud. Just the act of being there, laying at her feet, seems to assure him of that, but it almost comes across as a false comfort, due to how desperate the song comes across – it’s like he’s a dog begging for any scrap of affection he can get. Just because that’s a rather sad and pathetic image doesn’t make this a bad song – actually it’s my #2 favorite on the record due to how smoothly it flows and how the up-tempo feel of it contrasts with the painfully sad implications of the lyrics. Perhaps part of that is the realization that I’d better enjoy it while it lasts – most of the rest of the record after this is a bit of a slog, pacing-wise.
Grade: A

4. Suddenly
I feel like this is the song that kind of becomes the template for most of the rest of the album. I don’t have a problem with Copeland being slow, mellow, atmospheric, or not delivering hooks that land right away. I’ve come to expect all of those things. But when I feel like I’m waiting through most of a song just for a few signs of life to reveal themselves from behind all the haze, I tend to get impatient. And that’s how I feel about this song, which seems to be about suddenly seeing someone in a new light that perhaps you’ve only known from afar or interacted with superficially. Aaron’s realization of this person’s inherent life and lightness, contrasted with the feeling of dryness and heaviness he feels, should be cause for celebration, but the song doesn’t quite make it there. He makes the mistake of singing in his lower register for the chorus, which barely seems to have any variance in the notes. I suppose it fits the aforementioned “dryness”, but I tend to prefer it when he saves the bleaker, more downtrodden side of his voice for the setup to a song, rather than using it in what’s supposed to be the main hook. This causes the song to drag on and not really do anything memorable until the bridge, when the drum programming suddenly gets more syncopated and jerky, and a horn section wriggles its way out of the woodwork. It’s a nice surprise, but it has the unfortunate side effect or reminding me of the song “Sincerity Is Scary” from The 1975‘s last album, and at this point that is definitely not a band that I want to hear other bands who have been on the scene much longer trying to emulate.
Grade: C+

5. Night Figures
This song provides a nice change of pace due to its nicely swaying piano melody in 6/8, and the stutter and crackle of its percussion sounds – it’s still very much an insulated, downbeat sort of song, but it stands out due to being more dynamic in the vocal and instrumental departments. The chorus makes use of a pitch-shifted vocal sound that, just for a brief second, makes Aaron’s voice superficially resemble Chris Martin from Coldplay, but like on one of the more experimental Coldplay songs from a more down-tempo album such as Ghost Stories. I really like the effect. This isn’t the song from which the album derives its title, but the cover image may have been inspired by it, as a man seems consumed by fears that when he kisses his lover, she’ll be surrounded by the dark specter of fear or depression or whatever he’s going through that threatens to drag her down, rather than her love being the thing to pull him back up out of it. The band gets the timing right in terms of when to bring in the live drums and make things more climactic – you hear it in the final chorus, which almost causes the previously muted chorus melody to take flight, particularly when a string section comes soaring up out of it to conclude the song. Once you’re at that point, I’m led to expect more of a lengthy outro than what we end up getting, perhaps a minute or so just to bask in that place of warmth and safety. But that probably isn’t appropriate to the narrative at this point, so instead the song is cut short and we move on.
Grade: B+

6. Skywriter
This is going to sound stupid when I’m the one who insists on boxing myself into the track-by-track review format, but these next two songs were the reason I kept procrastinating every time I thought about getting this review done. I remember so little about what happens musically in both of these songs, because both have such “dry” vocal melodies (like my earlier criticism of “Suddenly”) and seem to float around without a whole lot happening in terms of rhythm or percussion or a strong instrumental motif to hold on to. There are instruments being played (in particular, a string section that sounds like it’s perpetually warming up), there’s a ton of attention to detail in the production as always, but my brain just refuses to remember most of it, and at a certain point I have to question whether that’s on me for not paying attention, or it’s on the band for not making it interesting. I’m annoyed with this song in particular for stopping me dead in my tracks each time I stopped to think about how well I had the album mapped out in my brain. It’s just flat out boring, perhaps describing itself best with one of its lyrical asides, “I’m deadweight”. I think it’s about the struggle of a poet or a songwriter to make his love for someone known in a universal manner. He could write it in the sky and make it very clear how he feels, but words with to him represent affection and kindness might just be viewed by the woman he loves as the ravings of a madman. That’s how he ends up getting being way too in his own head to adequately express his love with her – he’s constantly preoccupied with the question “Do I come off crazy?” Copeland has pulled an effective trick on their last few albums, with some of these slower, greyer songs, where a female vocalist will show up in the middle to give it a bit of color. Rae Cassidy served this role on You Are My Sunshine, then Steff Koeppen on Ixora. Here the vocalist who I have once again never heard of goes by the name of Young Summer. Her voice is a nice enough counterpoint to Aaron’s, but the song doesn’t get much of a melodic lift when she shows up, and it’s become a bit of a predictable card for the band to play at this point, so unfortunately this still ends up being the weakest track on the album.
Grade: C-

7. Colorless
Now here’s a song that aptly describes itself. To be fair, I think it was done that way on purpose. I can actually hear some contrast between the more downtrodden verses and the sweet relief of Aaron’s falsetto coming back from the chorus on this one, which is appropriate since he seems to be in utter despair about being in a place where he’s lost all the color from his world and there’s no rescue from this drab existence in sight. But the effect of it still feels more like a dark grey suddenly brightening to a lighter grey, as I just can’t put my finger on any snippets of melody that stand out here. I wouldn’t even mind a song being intentionally bleak and avoiding the expected melodic elements to make a statement, if this was the only such song on the record, but by the time I get to this track, I’m already feeling a bit worn out by the few others that struck me as unmemorable. It’s noteworthy that, for its lack of color, the brighter grey turns to white hot near the end of the song, where the drums and bass come in much louder and the electric guitar is just wailing, not really in a structured way where I’d consider it a solo, but certainly spamming the mix with a frenetic tremolo, creeping gradually up and down the fretboard to add the the overall sense of anxiety. Still not a great song, but at least that last bit of energy starts to make me feel something.
Grade: C+

8. On Your Worst Day
This one’s an interesting entry in terms of showcasing what Copeland can do with a longer song, that sort of stretches the boundaries of what might be conventionally considered a “song”. The most extreme example of this in their discography is the ten-minute closer “Not So Tough Found Out” on You Are My Sunshine, so at six minutes this one seems almost modest by example, but it’s still noteworthy. (It’s also weird to me that “As Above, So Alone” is the album’s second longest track at around five and a half, and yet it never feels particularly long, while the previous two songs were in the four minute range but seemed to drag on forever.) This one feels more like… competing fragments of songs, I guess? There’s a music-box like piano melody that starts it off, skipping and gradually breaking apart like something vaguely remembered from a dream, which is appropriate to the mood of the album and immediately different from the preceding songs, because it at least gives you something of a motif to grab hold of. The series of verses that follow there… well, if you’re like me, you’ll have to be a bit patient through those, as they seem to float in a state of suspended animation without a whole lot else going on, perhaps pulling a bit from the Bon Iver playbook due to how obsessed the band seems to be with layering and digitizing the sound of Aaron’s voice at a few points in time. All of this would have played a lot better if not for the abysmal pacing of this section of the album – having already been through back-to-back slow songs at this point really weakens the impact. I think it’s interesting what the lyrics are trying to do here, contrasting a man’s willingness to make his lover feel good even when she’s at her lowest point, with her tendency to (from his point of view, at least) disengage from whatever he’s going through when he desperately needs her to reach out and reconnect with him. When a wayward keyboard melody drifts in and suddenly there’s a chunky programmed beat to change up the character of the song, that’s where it all finally starts to come together. At that point it’s like the song is deliberately designed to confuse you in terms of what its rhythm should be. The drums staunchly insist on a rigid 4/4, while that melody from the intro tries to creep back in, establishing more of a waltz-like feel. Eventually the interlocking pattern of these two discordant bits of music reveals itself, until the “music box” aspect of the song finally takes over in the sweeping, orchestral outro. I’m actually kind of bummed that the song doesn’t go on for longer once that moment of clarity arrives. I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about all the pieces fitting together on this one, or whether I’ll want to listen to it much outside the context of the album, but as more of an abstract experiment, at least it stands out, rather than blending into the wallpaper like its neighbors do.
Grade: B-

9. Strange Flower
I was pretty surprised to see the “Explicit” tag on this one when I first brought this album up in Spotify. I think that’s a first on a Copeland album. The line in question comes in the climax of the song, so there’s a bit of build-up before they drop the bomb. I’ve become a believer in the value of cursing to punctuate a song when it’s used sparingly, so I’m more intrigued by Copeland’s choice to do so, rather than shocked or disappointed. It’s intended more as something he’s saying in defense of himself, rather than to coarsely insult or offend another person. (That being said, this track will be a definite “skip” when my kid is in the car – not like Blushing is much of a “car album” in terms of an ideal place to listen to it anyway.) I suppose I should backtrack a bit to how the song gets there. The opening verse is practically just Aaron spitting out lyrics in monotone with nothing else to anchor it, but it soon develops into another one of their “slow jams” that you know is taking its time to build up to the good stuff. The bass and drums slowly bump along, at least giving it more of a rhythmic grounding than the last several songs, but it’s another one of those where I can’t say there’s a lot going on that grabs my attention, musically, or melodically, until it reaches its emotional peak. The gist of it is that a man seems to be losing his ability to focus, perhaps even his grip on reality, causing him to be emotionally distant whenever he’s with the woman he loves. Ironically, his quest to be seen as worthy of her love seems to be the entire thing that kicked off this whole existential crisis in the first place, so it’s a bit of catch-22. But when the song trades its more rigid structure for more of a smoothly flowing acoustic guitar strum, that’s when he seems to snap out and speak up in defense of himself when others would seek to criticize him for his failing mental health: “Call me crazy, some nights I think it’s true/Call me desperate, at times I am for you/Call me fuck-up, at least I pull myself up.” This is repeated a few times, almost like a mantra for man who has more self-awareness and more of a grip on sanity than we might have assumed, leading to the closest thing to a “big rock finish” that this album seems like it’s in the mood to attempt. It doesn’t really stick in my head like some of Copeland’s better climaxes do, but it’s a nice surprise to bring us up and out of the slowest and most challenging section of the album.
Grade: B-

10. It Felt So Real
This interlude is really just a bookend to “Pope”, bringing back the whispered female vocals against a blurry backdrop of Aaron’s wordless falsetto and some echoing synth sounds. It fleshes out the story of that song a bit more, as it reveals that she too had a dream, in which she was with the guy at a dance, everyone else ignoring them, and all she could say was his name, but as she called out to him, it was like he snapped out of his funk and was finally awake. I guess that’s when they woke up for real, and she started asking him (as she does again here) what he dreamed about. It’s interesting to me that in her dream, things are more real and tangible than they are to him in the real world, and her idea of the dream coming true would be for him to finally re-establish his grip on reality so that they could finally be together without the funk of depression or all the philosophical quandaries getting between them.
Grade: B-

11. Waltz on Water
This album is only 48 minutes long, but boy, does it feel like it took a lot longer to get to what turns out to be a modest ending. It’s actually a pretty good song, just not one that makes a whole lot of sense to me as a closer. Remember how I referred to the piano melody from “On Your Worst Day” as a “waltz”? That was intentional, because I was thinking forward to this song, where the group once again pulls out that trick of establishing a waltz-like rhythm with the piano, then contradicting it with a simple 4/4 beat once the drums come in. The result is less abstract than it was last time around, due to this song having more of a verse/chorus structure. It’s an intriguing dance where the two partners don’t seem to quite be in sync, but then it all starts to make sense once you take the time to observe how their movements play off of each other. Perhaps that’s where the title comes from, because walking on water is already hard enough, to pull off the supernatural amount of balance and poise it would take to actually dance on it is another thing entirely. The lyrics to this one are troubling at times, possibly finding our protagonist on the verge of suicide, or at least recognizing that he doesn’t seem to have full control of his faculties: “I can’t slow my thinking/A blur of streetlights/Through my tears, they’re beautiful/I might crash my car/Just to feel something pull my world apart.” It’s like he needs a jolt to snap him back to reality… but what if that jolt ends up killing him? This song refuses to wrap the story up with a tidy ending, leaving it on a more ambiguous note where his lover is invited to come explore this dreamlike state with him, but he can’t promise he’ll ever fully escape it. Maybe it doesn’t feel like an ending to me because it’s not meant to, but it still strikes me as a bit odd when the song has been gently grooving along for a few minutes (it’s an understated groove, but it’s one of the most effective ones on the album), and then suddenly it stops with two crashes on a cymbal. This sort of reminds me of how Radiohead‘s OK Computer ended, with the implication of a man headed for a car accident, but the last sound heard was simply the calm ding of a bell. It’s not as iconic of an ending, but it’s at least one that makes me ask questions and keeps me curious, which is more than I can say for long stretches of Blushing.
Grade: B

WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Pope $2
Lay Here $1
As Above, So Alone $1.75
Suddenly $.50
Night Figures $1.25
Skywriter $0
Colorless $.50
On Your Worst Day $.75
Strange Flower $.75
It Felt So Real $.25
Waltz on Water $1
TOTAL: $9.75

BAND MEMBERS:
Aaron Marsh: Lead vocals, keyboards, piano, guitar
Bryan Laurenson: Lead guitar
Stephen Laurenson: Rhythm guitar

LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:

MORE USEFUL LINKS:
http://www.thecopelandsite.com
https://www.facebook.com/copeland

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