Hold Steady frontman Craig Finn is a deeply empathetic songwriter. That’s not always obvious, since his characters tend to be working through (self-imposed) streaks of bad luck or turbulent emotional spirals. However, even his protagonists with shifting moral compasses tend to be likable, mainly because Finn is adept at stressing that the human condition rarely deals in absolutes.
His third and best solo album, We All Want The Same Things, features characters that are more vivid and complex than ever. The titular couple of “Jester & June” realize too late that you can’t go home again, especially if the good old days involve buying a sketchy substance from “the bartender’s friend” that “was probably coriander.” The wrenching “It Hits When It Hits” profiles an earnest man who thinks he’s found the love of his life—although the object of his affection sees things differently—while the couple in “Rescue Blues” find uneasy equilibrium in codependency.
We All Want the Same Things’ centerpiece is the piano-driven “God In Chicago,” a compelling spoken-word vignette that could double as the plot of a poignant romantic drama. Finn’s narration is matter-of-fact but resigned, as he portrays a man drawn into a scheme driven by grief, escapism, desperation, and broken dreams. Vocalist Annie Nero, portraying the song’s female protagonist, adds additional (and welcome) yearning harmonic shading.
Such detailed, thoughtful arrangements also buoy the rest of the record. “Birds Trapped In The Airport” is a whirring electro-pop standout featuring lilting vocals from Rainer Maria’s Caithlin De Marrais; the earworm “Preludes” boasts a recurring flute loop and a luxurious synthesizer underbelly; and “Ninety Bucks” is an easygoing throwback to Cracker’s askew country rock. Yet the record’s energy rarely lags, and even Finn’s usual soul-rock barnburners—such as “Tracking Shots,” which pairs Elvis Costello & The Attractions-caliber organ with raucous sax and horns—have more oomph. We All Want The Same Things finds resonant common ground in the idea that shared imperfections bring people together.
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Death is greater than the end of life. It’s an irreversible lacking, a gaping absence, and an unfathomable pain all rolled into one. It haunts by its ability to make the immediacy of vanishing so apparent, and that invisibility permeates every inch of Mount Eerie’s new album, A Crow Looked At Me, in which Phil Elverum grapples with the death of his wife, Geneviève Castree Elverum, who died from pancreatic cancer last July. Pain is the crux of Elverum’s career, and without resorting to any of his brutally stark instrumentation, he offers his most sobering full-length to date, and likely of all time. The irony isn’t lost on him, as irony can’t play a role in something as somber as the loss of a partner, but he addresses it in one blunt swoop anyway: “Conceptual emptiness was cool to talk about back before I knew my way around these hospitals.”
Instead of resorting to overblown metaphors, he lets the quotidian articulate what he took for granted: bloody tissues crumpled on a table, her toothbrush in the trash, and a package that arrives in her name, a backpack she purchased for their daughter that she can never gift her in person. Every detail comes from the recording process. He wrote the album in the room where she died, using mostly her instruments, writing the words on her paper, looking out the same window, subjecting himself to the few things that retain her scent before it disappears. In time, sunlight and drafts sweep away a person’s presence. Surrounding himself in her absence isn’t Elverum wallowing. It’s a desperate attempt to cling to what remains. It’s what anyone who’s ever lost someone dear hopes to be true: If you refuse to let go, you won’t lose them—at least not forever.
Although everything he details should make him sob, Elverum sings as if he’s at peace, or at the very least is trying to be. As he pours Geneviève’s ashes onto a beach they planned to live at on “Seaweed,” he struggles to accept reality. “But the truth is I don’t think of that dust as you,” he sings, amending it with, “You are the sunset.” It’s an unresolved note, one that lingers on a half-step descent, echoing what the rest of the album wishes for so earnestly. It’s there in the gentle finger plucking of “Ravens” all the way to the weird hissing in the background of “My Chasm.” Elverum deals with death by staring it straight in the eyes but hesitating to resolve chords, phrases, and his own disbelief, telling himself it’s real, while his brain, represented by the musical structures he balances the lyrics on, refuses to let it settle as fact. Why should he? If someone’s existence enriches our lives through the way we view them, the only way for them to truly die is to forget their existence. By recording an album less than a year after his wife’s passing, Elverum makes certain he never will.
Purchase A Crow Looked At Me here, which helps support The A.V. Club.
Part of Pallbearer’s charm is that it’s never been concise. Its songs are long, laboring pieces of doom metal, pulling plenty of influence from Black Sabbath’s proto-metal without merely worshipping at the altar. On Heartless, the Arkansas band still sounds vintage, but it’s taken on some modern flourishes in the process. It’s easy to spot the influence of Metallica’s classic riffing on tracks like “I Saw The End” and “Thorns,” spacey and prog-inspired in ways that would never fit on one of Pallbearer’s previous albums.
And while not shortened to pop-song length, the songs here are a bit shorter than what Pallbearer has become known for. There’s still a pair that go well over the 10-minute mark but, as far as metal goes, a five-minute song might as well be a radio single. While Pallbearer has always given itself over to its most sprawling urges, Heartless is a tightly distilled version of everything the band has done before. The interplay between guitarists Brett Campbell and Devin Holt feels lighter, as in the song “Lie Of Survival,” where they play off one another instead of conjoining into one big, sprawling movement.
In many ways, Heartless feels like Pallbearer’s prog album, turning down the distortion and allowing itself to wander within the confines of doom. Given that the band has often drawn comparisons to Mastodon, both in terms of its sonic scope and career trajectory, it’s a move that makes sense. But as Heartless proves, Pallbearer is more than capable of making those old moves feel fresh.
Purchase Heartless here, which helps support The A.V. Club.
On Pleasure Suck, it’s hard to see any traces of the band The Spirit Of The Beehive used to be. The Philadelphia group always had a certain adventurousness to it, especially in a live setting. It was big and spacey and capable of blowing you over due to its sheer force. But on record, it often played the role of an underproduced shoegaze band. Those all-consuming washes of guitar and daring songwriting choices were dulled due to the albums always feeling a bit muted. But with Pleasure Suck, The Spirit Of The Beehive finally captures those more experimental, ambitious tendencies, even if it doesn’t always work.
In the first three tracks, it’s easy to see the band’s versatility. The title track opens the album with violin that’s quickly sucked up by distorted drum machines and synth washes, “Ricky (Caught Me Tryin’)” is the band’s take on a folk-based psych-rock song, and “Time To Scratch Them All” is basically post-punk gone electronic. It’s the constant bounce between these styles that makes Pleasure Suck a nimble, exciting listen. But once you know what moves are going to be made, the holes in the songwriting become all the more noticeable. There’s a beauty in hearing a band throw everything at a wall, but it often appears more interesting for the people doing the tossing than those listening.
Purchase Pleasure Suck here, which helps support The A.V. Club.