Here We Go Magic’s 2010 performance at the Glastonbury Music Festival was the kind of show that bands dread—an early-morning set for a sparse, largely uninterested audience—but it proved to be fateful. As Here We Go Magic leader Luke Temple tells the story, the only two crowd members who paid the band any real attention that morning turned out to be Thom Yorke and longtime Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich, who was so smitten with the group he began seeking out its subsequent shows, eventually offering to produce its third album. Of course Here We Go Magic accepted. Working with one of music’s most elite producers is the kind of opportunity that no mid-level indie-rock band would turn down, and the Godrich connection will almost certainly juice sales of A Different Ship. But the album itself is such a listless, mannered affair that Here We Go Magic might have done better to politely decline. It’s ironic that Godrich fell for the band after witnessing it onstage, since the record he made with Here We Go Magic is a strict studio creation with none of the punch or spontaneity of a great live show.
Here We Go Magic’s previous albums roamed freely, pit-stopping at all of Brooklyn’s trendiest sounds. Those grab-bags of baroque folk, psychedelia, African pop, homemade loops, and light noise were rough around the edges, but they were executed with a cheery zeal that made their uneven fidelity and hit-or-miss nature irrelevant. Temple may as well have been describing his own work on 2010’s Pigeons when he sang, “It’s casual, not heartbreaking.” A Different Ship flips that template: It’s a formal, self-consciously respectable album, and though it’s not heartbreaking, between the affected whimper in Temple’s voice and the big-theme bent in his songwriting, it sure tries its damndest.
Godrich’s contributions to Radiohead can’t be overstated. He’s the center that holds the band’s many moving parts together, joining it as a purposeful whole. Part of the charm of Here We Go Magic, though, is that its parts didn’t need to fit together—they’re actually a lot less interesting when they do. The same production techniques that render Radiohead’s albums so pristine do A Different Ship no favors, since Here We Go Magic’s songs don’t carry nearly as much dramatic heft as Radiohead’s, let alone any of the elusive mystique. Framing Temple’s songs in display-case glass only reveals how little they have going on, and the tidy production saps his band of its best trait: its scrappiness. Though it runs more than eight minutes, Ship’s title track goes nowhere, and even the jaunty “Make Up Your Mind” is too tightly wound to cut loose. Funny how it took one of rock’s most esteemed producers to helm Here We Go Magic’s least distinguished album.