I guess the trend to stray away from one’s roots is a common theme with indie rock bands this year. Just last Friday, Lydia provided enough evidence to my theory with their poppy and upbeat album “Run Wild.” If they started the idea, then Silversun Pickups’ newest album “Better Nature,” released today, proves the point.
After a very long three years away, singer/guitarist Brian Aubert, bassist Nikki Monninger, drummer Christopher Guanlao, and keyboardist Jon Lester have finally released their follow-up to “Neck of the Woods,” an album known for being their first step away from that fuzzy-distorted sound. After repeated listens, I felt a lack of surprise in their new identity, drifting more towards electronic synth-pop than anything they’ve done in the past. The transition between “Neck of the Woods” and “Better Nature” is less drastic than between “Swoon” and “Neck of the Woods,” which is a good thing for longtime followers of their music.
In the past, I could’ve considered their first two albums “Carnavas” and “Swoon” to be some of my favorite albums. That’s how devoted I am to that version of the band. “Neck of the Woods” was sort of a letdown, while hearing “Better Nature” resulted in a mere shrug. It was to be expected, considering Aubert and company formed their own record label to secure creative control over their album, while recruiting and reuniting with “Neck of the Woods” producer Jacknife Lee (having previously worked on albums by Snow Patrol, Taylor Swift, and Robbie Williams). While that grunge/shoegaze sound is on life support, this synth-heavy sound has permeated their music and assumed control. Those heavy guitars of Brian Aubert are instead hijacked by keyboardist Joe Lester and his looping synth textures. The listener will understand this within the opening moments of the album, containing the robotic beeps and droning arrangements of “Cradle (Better Nature).” The good thing is this is one of the few songs where that grungy guitar rhythm fights back with a great chorus section.
Listening to this album, I picture the guitar dancing a tango with the keyboard, but both at different paces. At some times their dance works to an extent, as is the case with “Cradle (Better Nature)” and “Pins & Needles.” At other times, though, I feel they are in conflict with each other. Two songs representing this struggle are “Circadian Rhythm (Last Dance)” and “Latchkey Kids,” both of which I feel one of them needs to step back and let the other assume control. At least Silversun Pickups let the guitar die mercifully on the two tracks “Friendly Fire” and “Ragamuffin,” both deserving of being played on future dance floors at high school proms. Despite this conflict between Lester and Aubert, I am happy with Nikki Monninger’s reminiscent performance on the bass guitar, which usually helps to demonstrate a powerful lyric or help transition between sections. One of my favorites “Tapedeck,” being one of few tracks that perfectly unites both guitars and keyboard, demonstrates that deep sound which plays under the mournful, lost love lyric “this used to be fun / back when we were young.”
Besides the guitars and drums, “Better Nature” continues to shift the focus of drummer Guanlao which started with their prior album. Instead of that classic snare-heavy sound (one that I particularly enjoyed because it was similar to my own style of drumming), the listener must sit through more drum machines and subdued beats. Much of the album follows these simple drum arrangements, making it sound more like Depeche Mode or Duran Duran than anything else. If I wanted to listen to those bands, I would’ve played “Violator” or “Rio.” I long for a more bombastic performance, but am happy I was treated to such with their single “Nightlight” and “Connection,” being easily their best songs on the album.
I’ve already discussed “Nightlight” in the past, but I will say that the song is the lone ray of sunshine for us classic-SSPU fans. It follows the formula set by amazing songs like “The Royal We,” “Panic Switch,” and “Lazy Eye,” being snare-driven drums, fuzzy rhythm guitars, and subtle keys. Silversun Pickups was right to release this song as their single, drawing in old and new listeners with an amazing music video. On the other hand, “Connection” is another great compromise between both Silversun Pickups, which utilizes an electronic sound without going overboard. I wish there were more songs on this album like this one.
So, is the album worth listening to? Of course it is; it’s the Silversun Pickups! Even if they aren’t who they used to be, they are still a group of highly skilled musicians creating passionate music. It’s definitely worth a listen, but doesn’t fill my urge for alternative or indie rock. The lack of that distorted sound leaves me empty, and hoping they revive that angsty, overdriven guitar on their next album. I would recommend, though, you listen to their prior album “Neck of the Woods” in preparing your ears for that sonic change. Please support these guys by visiting their website, or by following them on Facebook and Twitter for band updates. I imagine they will be on tour to support this album in the coming months, so stay tuned for information! I know despite my mixed opinion of the album, I will definitely check them out again if they come close to home. They play one amazing show, and are even mentioned on this site as being one of my favorite concerts I’ve attended.