Wednesday, July 31, 2019

album review: 'fever dream' by of monsters and men any of you remember the debut breakthrough for Of Monsters And Men?

I certainly do - mostly because it felt really weird! Here was a band that released their debut in 2011, riding the success of crossover smash 'Little Talks', which I could argue is one of the best hits of the 2010s. And while most people only really knew Of Monsters And Men as a one-hit wonder curiosity, I'd argue that's a really unfortunate characterization of a pretty unique indie folk act, working dual vocals with a ton of melodic flourishes, diverse instrumentation, and songwriting that took a primal approach to heavy subject matter. In the era of Mumford & Sons, Of Monster And Men were more wild and untamed and took way more chances... so maybe it wasn't a good thing that it took until 2015 for them to release a sophomore follow-up. Granted, it didn't help matters that Beneath The Skin didn't really measure up to the hype - the singles didn't move in the same way, the production took steps towards conventionality to dilute a somewhat unique approach, and the writing just didn't have the same punch, leading to a good album but not a great one. And I'll admit it led to a lot of trepidation for the newest album FEVER DREAM, dropping another four years later when any sparks of that indie folk boom are long dead - and more alarmingly, while I had people asking me to cover Beneath The Skin, I got no requests to cover FEVER DREAM. But screw it, I still like this band, there had to be something here, right?

So here's the thing: I totally get why to many folks this album is flying under the radar: after the burly, aggressive lead-off single 'Alligator' that reflected a real change in sound even from their more conventional sophomore project, many folks probably came to this album and thought, 'Oh, the band is embracing a similar glossy 80s-inspired tone that's more heavily reliant on synths and big percussion and that has been beaten to death so many times in the past couple of years - not interesting, moving on'. And while we'll get into more of why this is in a minute - I'm frankly shocked I didn't place more emphasis on it last time I reviewed this band - this is one of those cases where streamlining and focusing on this particular sound doesn't necessarily reflect a weaker album; hell, I'd argue FEVER DREAM is a bit of a rebound - not quite at the level of the debut, but still promising all the same and with more hits than misses.

So let's start with the instrumentation and production, and let me preface this that the band did want to move away from more acoustic folk-leaning sounds, and while I question giving up that creaking organic variety in the horns that made their breakout hits so distinctive, if they want to go more electric and embrace the strong groundswell of melody that has made this band kick ass before, I'm all for it. And more often than not, they succeed - I already mentioned 'Alligator' but when you follow it with the flattened grind that kicks into the huge piano line that drives 'Rororo', the sharper new wave rollick off the glassy 'Vulture, Vulture' and the rubbery 'Wars' to the splashy colour of the hook on 'Wild Roses' and the pulsating drive of 'Soothsayer'; all of these songs carry the sort of melody that has run through every Of Monsters And Men album, just in a tighter, more groove-driven package. Hell, even on a song like 'Ahay' that brings in rumbling drum machines, a snap beat, and pitch-shifted vocal loops - probably placed a bit early on the album too - there's still melody anchored in the keys and the keening swells of guitar, and once again when Nanna Bryndis Hillsmarsdottr and Ragnar Porhallson lean into their vocal harmonies, the alchemy clicks and it's powerful. And while I'm left thinking that a few of these songs could afford a meatier bridge or solo, especially in the case of 'Alligator' and 'Soothsayer', for as different of a sound as this feels for Of Monsters And Men, the compositional foundation is solid and easing up on the reverb means the melodies get a fair bit more airtime than they did on the last project - these are all steps in the right direction.

But the larger question is whether they are steps enough, and this is where we need to focus on the mixing and production from Rich Costey. I've been on the fence about this guy for some time now - he produced my favourite Franz Ferdinand album, but you can also thank him for the missteps on Kimbra's The Golden Echo, Frank Turner's underwhelming Tape Deck Heart, and the production on the last two Muse projects - but there was absolutely a shift between My Head Is An Animal when it came to more aggressive but also more colourless textural choices. And in my eyes, for as much as the increased guitar compression and tighter, closer layering might make Of Monsters And Men feel more immediate to the radio, they come at the cost of a wilder, organic, sweeping scope that matches the writing and especially Nanna's delivery, especially on this album - it's nowhere near as egregious, but it does remind me of a similar approach Butch Vig took Widows Weeds by Silversun Pickups, and it's the wrong choice. Instead it's hard to escape the feeling some of the glassier synth tones and percussion loops sound canned, pulled from the standard indie rock playbook of the 2010s - and unfortunately I'm not about to let the band off the hook here. Part of this comes through in some weird layering choices, like that filmy cymbal against the teased vocal yelps on 'Stuck In Gravity' or the grainy, watery effects that don't match the blown out yet muffled vocals on the outro of 'Under a Dome', but part of this is Ragnar's much more muted and underwhelming vocal delivery. To put it bluntly, when you have a project that is so heavily reliant on vocal and compositional chemistry between the two leads, you can absolutely tell fewer songs were written together or delivered with the same intensity, and the contrasting energy is jarring.

Granted, you can also tell this is part of the point, which is where we get to the content. Now credit where it's due, I've always appreciated how Of Monsters And Men use their two singers to play off each other in the writing - there's a naturalistic give and take that frankly does not hit when one dominates the lead... but you can tell Nanna is much more restless on the album in her writing. It's not hard to hear the subtext across damn near the entire album of wanting to strike into uncharted territory, face the snakes and demons of the wild rather than stick in her comfort zone, but that obsessive chase can be detached or utterly draining for a partner - creative or otherwise, both text and subtext imply both - especially when said partner can't match it. And what's kind of tragic is that you can tell Ragnar wants to match it, but lingering internal demons are dragging him back, from the depression of 'Vulture, Vulture' to the on-the-nose metaphor of 'Stuck In Gravity' - as much as it's irksome, given the content the vocal delivery makes sense. And yet here's where things get messy, because on songs like 'Wild Roses' you can tell Nanna is writing her way out of her insecurities and frustrations where Ragnar would be content to stay in place, and it begins to feel like the cracks are inevitable, and while you want to root for them both, the songs where Nanna takes lead feel more deft and lyrically creative, and on the flip side we get lines on 'Stuck Like Honey' describing her love dripping like honey through his hands... yeah, it just feels clumsier. Now thankfully we do get something of a climax on the final two songs, but in both cases we're left with an uncertain ending: he sees the sharp conclusion to what was built before but still is falling - be it for her or into his own depression it's tricky to tell - and she still is yearning for him despite her drive forward. And given how abrupt the song ends, so heavily leaning into minor keys, you're left thinking that a little more lyrical detail or something would provide a clue of how it'd click... but in a strange way I'm reminded of that same weary uncertainty that filled the end of Glitterbug by The Wombats on 'Curveballs' as the tension remains. But I'm not quite sure it clicks in the same way - it makes sense, but emotionally it leaves the album a bit unfulfilled.

And that leaves me in a weird place with FEVER DREAM - absolutely an improvement where the brighter melodies and hooks get more presence, and I appreciate the lyrical give-and-take - even if the fractures are visible the band is growing, and I appreciate that. But man, get them a more interesting producer and maybe embrace more of their communal process again, because this only a few moments and tweaks shy of greatness, and that's exasperating on my front. As such, for me I'm giving this a very strong 7/10 and absolutely a recommendation, especially if you're a fan of this brand of modern, synth-touched indie sound, but if you're long-time fans this might not click in the same way, friendly warning. Otherwise... you know, this album is probably to go overlooked by a lot of folks, but it's still worth your time - give it a chance, good stuff.

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