Our Lady peace had a hell of a four-album run to open their career. 1994’s Naveed burst the act into the mainstream within the confines of their native Canada, with help from singles such as “Birdman” and the record’s title track. Clumsy followed and catapulted the quartet onto rock radio stateside on the heels of “Superman’s Dead”. Things then got interesting as 1999’s Happiness ... Is Not a Fish That You Can Catch wasn’t as commercially successful as its predecessors, though it provided the group an odd sense of credibility as the album proved to be popular within both casual and hardcore fans alike. Spiritual Machines—the 2000 love letter to Ray Kurzweil’s book of the same name—then accrued legend status to those who followed the band, its over-your-head concept premise impressing listeners everywhere and its pop song-writing chops proving to be as accessibly hip as the band has ever been. Both longtime fans and critics have often considered it the band’s masterpiece.
... And then Mike Turner left. And no matter how many times the band’s members insist his departure didn’t matter all that much, the group’s legacy has subsequently been divided into The Years With Mike Turner and The Years Without Mike Turner. To this day, it’s hard to put a finger on what exactly it is that changed. Gravity, the 2002 album that brought Our Lady Peace its most mainstream success to date behind the infectious “Somewhere Out There”, was guitarist Steve Mazur’s first go-around with the band, and combined with Bob Rock’s production tricks, the effort showcased a decidedly harder sound with a more polished edge. So, you can point to that when trying to figure out where the change came from, if you’d like. But after the disappointing and rushed (their words, not mine) Healthy in Paranoid Times, they erased Rock from the equation and yet Burn Burn, Our Lady Peace’s first DIY-fueled album, still didn’t quite measure up to those first four records.
It’s one of recent rock’s great mysteries, really. Yeah, the guitars have more low-end now, and sure, Turner carved out a specific style he perfected that added an element of atmosphere to Our Lady Peace’s sound that might not be there today. But in reality, it’s hard to come up with a legitimate, all-encompassing, objective reason for the decline in substance of the band’s work. It’s a little more accessible and crunchy, sure, but since when did accessibility and crunch completely ruin a band’s sound?
Naturally, then—and almost in a vague sign of defeat—it should come as no surprise that the band is doing everything it can to point out that its latest effort, Curve, is the closest Our Lady Peace have come to sounding like their one critical darling, Spiritual Machines. And naturally, much like they insist the lack of Mike Turner in the band has no bearing on what direction the band has since headed, their case for art rock domination is fundamentally flawed here for reasons that probably can’t even be palpably supported.
The most obvious comparison between the two albums is the fact that both are loosely based around a concept. Spiritual Machines had a book. Curve has boxing. The attempt at centering the album around a singular idea here, though, comes off as nothing more than a cheap attempt to recreate the type of cohesive ideals that made Spiritual Machines so mesmerizing. Instead of spoken-track verses read from a book, here we merely receive an album cover featuring Canadian boxer George Chuvalo throwing a punch, a first single called “Heavyweight” and a final track spliced with what sounds like movie quotes. And that’s it. That’s the list. Call it a concept album if you want. Just don’t call it Spiritual Machines Part 2.
Musically, Curve sees the band take an odd, if not surprising turn. Gone is the pop-hard-rock Our Lady Peace have settled into within recent years showcased best on Burn Burn‘s “Dreamland” or Gravity‘s “Not Enough” or “Do You Like It”. In is a seemingly blatant attempt at recapturing and updating the ambiguity that shone so well on Spiritual Machines and even Happiness …. For instance, Curve‘s “Window Seat” is an experiment gone awry that quickly blurs the line between interesting and boring. Its slow tempo sets the mood well, but as the song begins to simmer in an epic fashion typically associated with ... say ... U2, the track never really boils over in the way it should. Its lack of climax ultimately proves disappointing rather than poignant.
Then, when Our Lady Peace decide to get back to the rock, the result may leave some longtime fans scratching their heads. “Allowance” and “As Fast As You Can” evokes Muse in the most obvious of ways with their fuzzed out grooves and simplistic pop songwriting approach. Sure, the change in direction should be applauded if only because it proves how willing the group is to evolve and how fearless they prove to be while doing so. But considering how unoriginal the tracks appear to be—seriously, spin most anything from Muse’s 2006 Black Holes and Revelations, immediately switch to either of these tracks and the similarities will haunt you for days—one is forced to ask the question of why the band would go to such lengths to try and sound so drastically different from who they once were. The performance comes across as more of a white flag than an act of evolution.
Still, there are at least some notable bright spots that would be irresponsible to ignore. “Fire in the Henhouse” and single “Heavyweight” are probably the closest the band have sounded to the days of old in recent years, most obviously because of Duncan Coutts’ bass being more prominent here than it has been in the last decade or so. “Heavyweight”‘s “You’ve gotta/stop/drop/roll” refrain that sees the majority of the band fade is even a tad reminiscent of Spiritual‘s “Everyone’s a Junkie”. And “Will Someday Change” sees another first for the band: a proper piano ballad. Accompanied by little else (sparse guitar parts veer in and out), the song features Maida and a piano combining for a pretty, if not understated, outcome that unexpectedly works well next to the rest of the album’s tracks.
But unfortunately, even those bright spots prove to be nothing more than a few band-aids on a problem that has grown larger than even the guys in Our Lady Peace could have ever imagined. Curve marks album No. 4 without Turner, equaling the amount of work the group put in with its former guitarist. Pitting both strings of albums against one another, it’s hard to believe most fans of Our Lady Peace wouldn’t side with the former rather than the latter and this latest release only really solidifies that. Curve is the sound of a band completely lost, aimlessly feeling around a dark room for a light switch that probably won’t even turn on if any of them can actually find it. Starting over is impossible at this point and throwing all the blame on Mazur’s heavier guitars isn’t entirely fair, considering the band has had four albums now to find its footing with him as a full-time member.
Spiritual Machines, this album most certainly is not. That was a different idea, during a different time, featuring a different band. Today’s version of Our Lady Peace isn’t that same band, for better or for worse, and this album is proof that today’s incarnation isn’t exactly sure about where they will be tomorrow in spite of having a firm grasp on where they were yesterday. It’s because of that precise idiom that Curve fails, leaving little hope for a legacy that at one time was filled with promising tomorrows.