There’s a fairly heavy conceptual framework hanging over Eats Darkness from the title on down—one this slight, eager to please album can neither sustain nor justify. The band are consuming darkness, you see, in order to expel light. Front man Andrew Whiteman (whose Broken Social Scene membership is at least the reason a lot of people heard of Apostle of Hustle in the first place, so we might as well get mentioning it out of the way) speaks of these 13 tracks as “a serial poem about some struggles people go through… tactics and attitudes needed in ‘life during wartime.’” Having some sort of organizing principle as an artist is a valuable thing, and often helps to give an album some sort of inner coherence. But putting the artist’s conception of what the art is ‘about’ out there is risky, because the audience not only might not agree, but if they do disagree the disjunction between what they think you’ve achieved and what you were trying to achieve can sink you. In this case, the portentousness surrounding the trio’s third album is so weighty—shamens and the poison of the modern world and “each track is like a tapas at the banquet of conflict”, oh my—that you’d expect Eat Darkness to be both darker and lighter than it actually is.
This is a record, after all, whose first sung lines are “Keep your friends close, the enemy closer / Kiss on the cheek from a punk-ass poser / On, hey, this shit is on”, and they’re sung over the same kind of trebly, febrile, nimble indie rock that Apostle of Hustle generally deal in. That “Eazy Speaks” is a song about the spirit of Eric Wright (aka Eazy-E) guiding you when things get rough, in this sort of language, is either going to strike you as playful or ridiculous, and it’s difficult to argue with either response. It’s hard to feel like much is at stake when Whiteman, elsewhere so conscientious about being a right-on modern progressive (especially on this album, littered with shots taken at anything vaguely corporate, imperial, colonial or, essentially, powerful), is taking his cues from “Nutz on Ya Chin” playing on his iPod.
And when the band gets a bit more explicitly serious it doesn’t always work. “Soul Unwind”, the longest track here by a minute, builds up to a decent head of steam, but with no purpose or lyrics except for repeated chantings of the title that there’s nowhere for the energy to go. “Whistle in the Fog” booms and roars with something approaching righteous anger, but I’m not sure whom it’s directed at. And although “How to Defeat a More Powerful Enemy” is blessed with a supple, sprightly chorus, you have to get through the pro forma Goliath-into-insurgents lyrics (in a self-help pamphlet setting no less) to get to it. It doesn’t help that only eight of Eats Darkness’s 13 tracks can really be called songs, the others being pastiches of sound effects, ads, sloganeering, revolutionary instructions, snippets of foreign speech, and so on. Of these interludes, only the penultimate “Nobody Bought It” really succeeds, and even then only as a doom-filled into to the closing “Blackberry”.
Despite that ominous introduction, the winsome, catchy “Blackberry” is thankfully an example of what Eats Darkness does well: cunning, well-wrought little pop songs that wear their intellectual underpinnings more lightly than the clumsier tracks here. At first, “Blackberry” sounds a bit like a song to an ex, but of course is about your smartphone; it moves along swiftly enough that you don’t mind the rather obvious legerdemain. And while “Xerses” takes halfhearted swipes at Disney, Nike, and L’Oreal, the jaunty drum and bass interplay on the verses and the subtly soaring chorus make it the best song here. “Eats Darkness” itself is a bashful little instrumental, but is more engaging than some of its more gregarious surroundings via a nicely distorted ending, and “Perfect Fit” tackles very risky territory (indie reggae, essentially) and succeeds, mostly by sounding like half a dub remix of itself.
Apostle of Hustle excels, in other words, mostly when they seem to focus less on the content of these songs and more on the craft—the form, not the function. Eats Darkness is in general a very well-crafted little album—you don’t feel overwhelmed by the interludes, and the weaker songs are arranged so that the album never actually slows that much—and the best songs here approach greatness. Normally, with a scattered album weighted with highfalutin’ concerns like this one, I’d say their maker needed a stronger or meatier concept. But here, for better or worse, I wish that Whiteman would stop writing songs about important things and just focus on writing good songs instead.