Compared to the emo artists with which he is often (and usually inappropariately) grouped, Jeremy Enigk has always displayed more maturity, intelligence, and depth in his music. While bands like Dashboard Confessional and the Promise Ring were reaching their artistic peak with a brand of poppy, punk-inspired rock that expressed relationship woes and adolescent angst in a very literal (and often whiney) manner, Enigk was delving into art-rock, folk, and Americana in order to make sense of issues a bit beyond the general malaise, alienation, and boredom of his peers—and doing so using music and lyrics which displayed greater sophistication and sensitivity than most bands out there.
During his decade-long association with Sunny Day Real Estate, Enigk never sacrificed substance for the sake of commercial appeal. And even though this approach surely lost him income, it certainly won him critical respect and fan loyalty—an increasingly rare phenomenon in the world of popular music.
Enigk’s music was at turns emotionally dense and euphoric, anthemic and provincial, difficult and accessible, angular and pastoral, often seeming to owe more to ‘70s theatrical rockers like David Bowie and Queen than ‘80s emo progenitors like Rites of Spring and Fugazi. And even when Enigk got god, his music never became overtly religious, devoutly simplistic, or preachy, but rather subtly reflected something more magical, ethereal, and elusive. Over his ten-plus years as a solo artist, too, Enigk’s output has been rife with emotional honesty, an extension of his work with Sunny Day Real Estate. And he continues down that path on OK Bear.
Musically, OK Bear isn’t a huge departure from Enigk’s previous solo work. He has certainly become a little less rough around the edges. Where he once used distortion and dissonant guitar passages with Sunny Day Real Estate, he now prefers delicate orchestration and acoustic guitar stanzas. The harmonies are still as dense and powerful as ever, but the edge has been dulled. However, whatever OK Bear lacks in in-your-face ferocity, it makes up for with intricacy and layers. The album shows us an artist who has continued to grow into a better songwriter. Like much of Enigk’s discography, OK Bear is a slow-boiler; it takes a handful of listens before the album’s melodies and subtle beauty reveal themselves. But once that happens, you’ll be glad you made the effort.
Lyrically, OK Bear bears the stamp of Enigk’s faith perhaps more strongly than any of his previous work. And that proves to be a bit of a distraction from the album’s excellent music. It’s not necessarily that OK Bear is filled with a literal discussion of religion or proselytizing verbiage; in fact, as mentioned earlier, Enigk has generally been good about singing about his faith in a universal-sounding way. But this album, more than Enigk’s previous efforts, is chock-full of open-ended imagery, metaphors, and ambiguous references that can make the non-believer feel marginally in need of a shower.
“Mind Idea”, the album’s opening track, is the most instantly accessible song on OK Bear. With Enigk’s trademark high-pitched piercing vocals, a strong backbeat, and copious amounts of fuzzy distortion, it’s the closest Enigk has gotten to Sunny Day Real Estate territory in some time. But while this music is the most immediate of anything on OK Bear, the song’s lyrics are what stand out most. It’s the most overt display of Enigk’s faith on record, and its salvation theme sets the lyrical tone for the rest of the album: “Steeples built upon graves / Every delight bloom / We’re marching through / Desire finds it’s way home to you / Design by your grace we live on”.
“Life’s Too Short” features angular, distorted guitar arpeggios and falsetto vocals that are also vaguely reminiscent of Enigk’s work with Sunny Day Real Estate. The song features the album’s smartest and most poignant lyrics, which are filled with double meaning as Enigk discusses the self-consciousness he feels about his faith and the world around him, particularly among his own friends: “But knotted up in my mind / I’m the joke of the room / Tattoo harmony / I saw in paradise glow / Had me down on my knees”.
Other standouts include “Same Side Imaginary”, which starts off with gentle acoustic guitar strumming and gradually builds up into a frenzy of rockage; “Restart”, a rock gem filled with jangly guitars and infectious hooks; and “Make Believe”, a bittersweet, achingly beautiful ballad.
Whatever your views on spiritual music, there’s no denying the sonic excellence of OK Bear. It’s more proof that Jeremey Enigk has far surpassed his “emo” peers in terms of songwriting. Fans of his Sunny Day Real Estate and Fire Theft days should be satisfied here. However, those who cringe at spiritual lyrics that make multiple references to the powers that be (and not as an ironic allusion to the Joss Whedon-verse) may need to look elsewhere.