On their third studio album (and first for Warner Bros. Records), Seattle-based indie rock band The Head and the Heart continue to deliver reliably catchy, singable melodies. Though clearly a creation of the same band that gave us 2011’s The Head and the Heart and 2013’s Let’s Be Still, Signs of Light takes more cues from pop rock than the garage-band brand of indie Americana that defined their debut. More often, electric guitar — a new introduction to TH&TH’s instrumentation — takes the lead rather than the violin (or any other instrument, for that matter, aside from frontman Jonathan Russell’s voice). Whether it’s directly a result of the electric guitar or more representative of a shift in songwriting mentality, the band presents a more filled-out sound here than on previous albums, growing in tandem with their audience.
Signs of Light opens with crowd-rising anthem “All We Ever Knew,” probably the most successful song as well as the rare track in which the violin takes a prominent role in carving out the melody. The chorus — for the most part, a catchy but meaningless “la la la” — opens with the line “All we ever do is all we ever knew.” While in the context of the song, this references the cyclical or recurrent nature of relationship woes, it also seems well-suited as an introduction to the album as a whole. It’s pleasant to listen to, with some sonic tweaks, but thematically, The Head and the Heart are rehashing familiar territory.
Most songs deal with an ambiguous sort of love or loss (or sometimes both), hinging largely on clichés — particularly ironic given the lyric, “ ’Cause I'm looking for the truth / Not some tired cheap cliché,” in “False Alarm.” Day-to-day mundanity, nostalgia and wounds healed only by the passing of time are all common themes throughout the album. TH&TH also appear to have found a more-than-casual interest in dreams and sleep, with lyrics referring to one or both appearing in seven of the 13 songs on the album, and even one song titled “Dreamer.” It’s difficult to decipher what exactly inspired this theme, or whether it was an intentional or a subconscious inclusion. Perhaps it's in some way tied to the band’s lengthy separation between Let’s Be Still and this release, or perhaps it’s, even better, just coincidence. In any event, food for thought.
While Signs of Light boasts a greater range of instrumentation than all of their previous material, as well as a more confident (and rightly so) falsetto out of Russell, there is a striking lack of Charity Rose Thielen’s voice. Though she does back a range of tracks, her only solo verse comes in the middle of “Colors.” Whatever the reason for her lack of vocal feature on the album, the absence of her effervescent, delicately wavering voice leaves a noticeable void.
Trading much of their indie charm in exchange for wider appeal, the sound of Signs of Light is a surprisingly accurate reflection of TH&TH’s move to Warner Bros. Records. For the vast majority of longtime fans, this album is sure to delight, but many will also lament the days when “Rivers and Roads” was a thorough representation of the band’s sound. There are valuable moments here, to be sure; “All We Ever Knew” is a clinic on earworm melodies (sporting about four distinct tunes itself), and the back-to-back “Oh My Dear” and “I Don’t Mind” present some of the strongest songwriting on the album and provide some of the only moments where it sounds like the band is actually challenging themselves sonically.
It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the album, per se, there’s just nothing new or particularly compelling about it. It seems that the only factor differentiating TH&TH from other alt-indie-pop-rock-folk bands, at this point, is Russell’s and Thielen’s voices. Ultimately, Signs of Light makes for a thoroughly pleasant listening experience. Unfortunately, even after multiple listens, the album fails to reveal any meaning deeper than what is indicated on the surface, and there aren’t many truly innovative, exciting moments, with fewer still challenging ones.