The Head And The Heart’s self-recorded, self-titled debut sold well enough to earn the band a deal with Sub Pop, leading to supporting gigs with everyone from Vampire Weekend to My Morning Jacket to The Walkmen. All that hard work apparently made the band very tired: Its new follow-up, Let’s Be Still, is a physically weary album recorded by a band that sounds pulled in opposing directions—expansion or distillation—but too exhausted to make a decision.
The Head And The Heart does an admirable job mixing the sounds of Arcade Fire, Fleet Foxes, and Mumford And Sons to create a wide-ranging kaleidoscope of folk-rock references. The best songs on the group’s debut had an infectious, building energy, as well as a distinct, though familiar, point of view. “Ghosts,” for instance, was about the unspoken conflict between people who get stuck in their hometown and those who get out (“All my friends are talking about leaving / But all my friends are sitting in their graves”), and the inevitability of death—all wrapped up in slinky, piano-driven Americana.
Let’s Be Still is absolutely drained of that infectious energy. The title track is the apex of the band’s burnout (“If things don’t slow down soon, we might not last”), but that feeling is couched in such a lack of urgency that it sounds like the group is resigned to giving up and going away. Hearing a band fighting against the forces of malaise can be exhilarating, an artistic expression of the battle against lethargy that affects most people in everyday life. Let’s Be Still suffers because it wallows in that quagmire, too calm and complacent to rattle the cage.
“Springtime” and “Summertime” combine to form a synth-laden folk-pop suite that yearns for sweeping transitions between several brief movements, but could also have snuck in unnoticed on the last Edward Sharpe And The Magnetic Zeroes record. “Shake” is a boot-stomping barnburner that almost harkens back to what was great about the band’s debut, but in shooting for more expansive production, smoothes out all the funky edges that made that record so endearing. The back half feels increasingly lethargic, as the band cycles through more midtempo saloon songs suitable for last call.
That’s not to say Let’s Be Still is entirely without highlights. Opener “Homecoming Heroes” contains the strongest outward-looking message on the album—about returning soldiers and the uneasy reintegration into society after war—though the title and lyrics push right to the edge of heavy-handed. “Josh McBride” is a natural progression from the previous album’s “Down In The Valley,” full of acoustic finger-picking awash in a chorus of crooning. And the harmonies are still decadent, mixing Josiah Johnson’s increasingly confident voice, Jonathan Russell’s gruff warble, and Charity Rose Thielen’s angelic backing vocals.
Still, Let’s Be Still falters in its lethargy. Perhaps the next time the band needs a break, it should actually take one to recharge and rediscover inspiration rather than writing about that lack of energy days before heading out on another world tour.