By Andrew Eckhous, Daily Arts Writer
Published September 19, 2012
Sometimes an album is so powerfully melancholy that the heartbreak is palpable. Truly, the sadness can be so arresting that it drags one by the ankles into an inescapable fortress of solitude. But those albums are the exception, not the rule. Too often, the purveyors of sadness porn aim for the stars and miss, a fatal flaw that sinks Mirage Rock, the fourth album by Band of Horses.
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BoH is best known for the band's heartfelt strain of alt-country found in songs like “The Funeral” and “No One’s Gonna Love You.” Relying equally on mountain-beard folk and outlaw rock, BoH has become popular through the authentic emotion and energy the group pours into its music. Not quite misanthropes, but definitely a little distrustful of the world, their music is well suited for an introspective drive under a desert sky. It’s not only easy to relate to, but also has a level of complexity that most of BoH's contemporaries simply don’t have.
Something is different on Mirage Rock, though. Ben Bridwell’s normally lush voice is missing its spark. Many of the songs channel Neil Young, but the quietly brooding version, not the fiery “Southern Man” personality. With song titles like “Heartbreak On the 101,” “Shut-In Tourist” and “Slow Cruel Hands of Time,” it’s abundantly clear that something in Bridwell’s life has gone wrong. However, the evocative, dynamic atmosphere is missing. It feels more like a bitter friend’s post-break up rant than a transcendent album, albeit with less crying and swearing.
However, there are also some spectacular tracks. “Dumpster World” contains some of the few rock-out moments on the album, with a minute-and-a-half of seriously hard riffs. The double-speed banjo chords on “Shut-In Tourist” are pleasant to listen to, and there isn’t a truly offensive song on the album. Unfortunately, the lack of bad is overshadowed by the lack of good. With the exception of “Dumpster World,” none of the songs are particularly memorable. Maybe the folk fanatics have a different opinion, but Mirage Rock seems to be an album of filler.
Much of the problem lies in the way this album was recorded. BoH worked with legendary producer Glyn Johns, who recorded much of the album live. The result is rawer for sure, but while many fans of folk believe more raw always means better, the music also seems flatter than past BoH albums. Gone is the spooky reverb vocals on “The Funeral,” replaced with the back-to-nature vocals of Mirage Rock. Bridwell constantly alludes to heartbreak and disenchantment, but the lack of force and urgency isn’t likely to provoke more than an “oh, that sucks” response from listeners.
Mirage Rock, while not extraordinarily impressive at first, has the makings of a “grower” album. It has tremendous lyricism and varied song structures, and the overall folksier feel will win a lot of converts come summertime. Band of Horses have purged themselves of most of our modern production tools, and while it may not be a resounding success, the legacy of this album is far from decided.