BAND OF HORSES: WHY ARE YOU OK (2016)
1) Dull Times/The Moon; 2) Solemn Oath; 3) Hag; 4) Casual Party; 5) In A Drawer; 6) Hold On Gimme A Sec; 7) Lying Under Oak; 8) Throw My Mess; 9) Whatever, Wherever; 10) Country Teen; 11) Barrel House; 12) Even Still.
I must say that I have to take some offense at the title. It is staring me right in the eye, silently implying that I am OK when I shouldn't be — even though I am most definitely not OK, nor do I feel like a particularly careless bather who just happened to climb out back on the beach, only to discover all of his/her clothes pilfered by bad fortune. It is, in fact, somewhat presumptuous to assume that the average buyer of your records is doing that because he/she needs to be shaken up from happy bourgeois slumber and face the harsh realities of a ruthless modern world. At least, last time Arcade Fire tried to do this with Funeral, it did not work, so how could it work with a band approximately ten times less talented?..
Fortunately, one listen to the album is enough to dispel the prior impression. Ben Bridwell would never agree (not in public, at least) with this assessment, but really, Why Are You OK works best if you not only drop your expectations down a deep well, but, in fact, agree to interpret it as a veritable musical anthem to inactivity, casualness, and even artistic impotence. It features some of the slowest, simplest, most meditative and event-less music written by Ben Bridwell, ever, and from time to time it even drops certain hints that this is the only thing worth doing today. The very first track, for instance, greets you with the cheerful "Listen close wherever you go / Dull times, let them seep into your bones" — and musically, the combination of the tempo, the droning guitar, and the lulling vocals suggest that Bridwell may have spent a bit too much time recently listening to the entire catalog of Beach House. Only where Beach House put their faith in the creation of a «magical» atmosphere, here, while retaining the trance-like aura of the music, Band Of Horses offer a more earthly, realistic vision.
This is neither too good... nor too bad. Just like the last time around (with Mirage Rock), I don't feel like any of these songs contain any staying power — but unlike the last time around, it's not even a matter of them pretending to contain it. It's very much an album of little, mundane things, enveloped in some humble, mundane sorrow: Band Of Horses are caught in the middle of a debilitating vacuum, and since 2016 does look an awful lot like a debilitating vacuum on the whole, Why Are You OK is perhaps even more symbolic of the void to me than it is to its creators. In all of these songs, they either sing about meaningless trifles (ʽIn A Drawerʼ manages to become the most memorable number on the album by featuring the repetitive hook "Found it in the drawer, found it in the drawer, took a little time but I found it in the drawer" — we're never told what the it actually is, but who really cares?), or ask pointless questions whose only purpose is to undermine your self-confidence (ʽHagʼ: "Are you truly in love? absolutely in love? you're happy enough, are you fully in love?"), or produce anthemic invocations delivered in such cold tones that you're sure they don't really mean it (ʽBarrel Houseʼ: "bring some peace to this world and keep passin' it on"). In short, this is an album about trying to make something out of nothing, because what else is there to be made in the first place?
Musically, there's not a lot of surprises here: by now we know only too well that Band Of Horses like a soft-rock sound with soaring production, and this time they made it even softer and more soaring than before. The lead single, ʽCasual Partyʼ, accompanied by a fairly bizarre video of the band members forced to play the song for a feast of cartoonish aliens, is really atypical of the album — too fast and upbeat, almost like a jangle-power-pop number, although the lyrical message is pretty much the same and even more explicitly than ever ("since Ben got that, he's a sociopath", they state without blinking). Most of the rest is far slower and drearier, really — imagine a Beach House record played by rootsy bearded guys. Occasionally, a simple sentimental note still slips by (ʽWhatever, Whereverʼ is Bridwell's ʽBeautiful Boyʼ, but it is too syrupy for my tastes), but really, the music as such does not feel depressing: the point is not to depress, but rather to freeze, and it does have a comatose effect — you might want to throw on some AC/DC once it's over, to spring your muscles back to action.
No thumbs up, anyway; I am not sure that I will remember how even one song goes on here in a week's time or so, but I might remember the strange overall effect — and the fact that I did not really enjoy that effect, even if I felt it. And I hope I'm interpreting all of this right, because if I'm not, then I'm losing my last crumbs of interest in this band.