For Sam Roberts, nostalgia is its own virtue. After three records, the Montreal rocker has by now surely earned the right to self-describe as a “veteran”, but like many of his musical countrymen, Roberts sounded like a grizzled old rock hand even in his impressionable early years. For all of the hooky pop on his 2003 full-length debut We Were Born in a Flame and the occasional, involved descents into jammy psychedelica on its 2006 follow-up, Chemical City, the deep commitment of Roberts and his band to a classic rock framework prematurely aged his songs, like a bottle of wine subjected to some sort of fermentation-speeding chemical mix.
This came inescapably to the fore on 2008’s Love at the End of the World, whose first two singles both extolled the virtues of the backwards-gazing approach not only in musical but also in lyrical and visual terms. The peppy “Them Kids” saw Roberts assuming the lecturing generational-gap codger pose so blatantly with both his words (“The kids don’t know how to dance to rock and roll / they’re always on the phone, and they’ve always got to have control”); and his music video (a parody of The Sims that reduces decades of style shifts to the click of a mouse button) that it left you doubting the title’s mild irony. For the rolling piano anthem “Detroit ‘67”, meanwhile, Roberts escaped the decaying titular city for a more vital and exhilarating past, even playing dress-up as a vintage city cop in the video alongside copious archival footage of the once-prosperous Motor City.
For his latest, entitled Collider, Roberts and his band finally share top billing on record as they long have onstage. The result is a loose if slightly predictable pop album that jettisons the occasional aforementioned conservative stridency for liberally-applied shuffling feet and shaking booties. Producer Brian Deck (who oversaw a couple of Iron & Wine releases as well as fine headphones-on records like Gomez’s A New Tide and Josh Ritter’s The Animal Years) trusts in the Sam Roberts Band to lay down the groove before sprinkling in different sonic elements. Lead U.S. single “The Last Crusade” closes with some pleasurable brass horns, which make re-appearances on “Streets of Heaven (Promises, Promises)” and “Let It In” (alongside a subtle woodwind line). Elsewhere, a guest spot by Land of Talk’s Elizabeth Powell transforms “Longitude” into something more dreamy and mystic than its assertive rhythm may have otherwise countenanced.
Such moments can’t ultimately hide the fact that, as a songwriter, singer, and artist in general, Roberts tends to be more reliable than revelatory. His lyrics are low-grade rock n’ roll poetry par excellence, full of mild wit, dried-out puns, and run-of-the-mill imagery and metaphors; he name-checks fellow Montrealer Leonard Cohen during the first Canadian single, “I Feel You” (which is by turns leaden and soaring), but Roberts can’t help but suffer from the contrast.
Indeed, as a lyricist, Roberts has long had a habit of brief but egregious slip-ups, infrequent lines that leap out at discerning listeners with their memorable awfulness (a strained couplet from the otherwise harmlessly catchy “Sang Froid” takes the cake this time around: “You were just 19; you had so much to be / But now you’re suffering from PTSD”). The further he ventures away from his lyrical bread-and-butter of barely-tweaked clichés, the more susceptible he is to such moments.
More than anything, Sam Roberts’ music is characterized more by its consistent competence than by any stunning flights of ambitious artistry, although album-closer “Tractor Beam Blues”, with its driving guitar climax, comes the closest of any of Collider‘s tracks to being greater than the sum of its parts. Apart from such admitted exceptions, Roberts absolutely excels at being slightly better than the average, but only just that and never terribly more. The adjective “solid” seems to have been contrived specifically for his benefit, or, rather, for the benefit of those trying to describe his product. This unremarkable solidity is likely a corollary of the temperamental devotion that Roberts and his band feel towards white-bread rock and roll nostalgia. Only by unmooring themselves from the past would they be able to gain much productive fluidity, but the Sam Roberts Band seem content with their position and disinclined to alter it too radically.