The Temper Trap hail from Australia, a continent with a lot of empty space, and perhaps that framed their approach to music – they are one of those bands that shoot for the big and grand, the sold-out, arena-sized, world-swallowing tunes. The Temper Trap’s first album, Conditions, was released in 2009, and one of its songs, “Sweet Disposition”, landed in the indie-button-pushing flick, 500 Days Of Summer. For their second release, The Temper Trap, the band kept their chest-beating approach, but incorporated a lot more electronics into their sound.
Conditions showed what the Temper Trap was about: falsetto lead vocals from Dougy Mandagi; big, thumping drums; guitar from Lorenzo Sillitto that played piles of trembling, cascading notes or huge, simple riffs; panoramic, multi-tracked choruses where some members of the band sing high, usually wordless backing vocals. The lyrics were often maudlin – take, for example, the words of “Sweet Disposition”: “Sweet disposition / Never too soon / Oh, reckless abandon / Like no one’s watching you / A moment of love/ A dream / A laugh / A kiss / A cry / Our rights / Our wrongs”. This list, sung only in falsetto, with each word dragged out interminably so as to fill a whole line, seems like it might have been pilfered from the diary of a 12 year old, and while pop lyrics don’t need to be mind-blowing and original, this can be hard to handle. Conditions worked when the instruments distracted the listener from what else was going on. “Fader”, the song after “Sweet Disposition”, buzzes along in a fairly nondescript fashion before launching into a chorus that has probably been earmarked for use in a commercial somewhere. It’s got “ooh ooh oohs”, very basic, yet still questionable lyrics (does the singer sing “its fading fader”?), and thick power-pop guitars; everything combines for a buoyant, uncomplicated appeal.
On The Temper Trap, the band’s goal is still achieving something big, maybe even something bigger than before – waving their hand in the direction of social commentary on the second song, “London’s Burning” (a topic already explored to great effect by the Clash), which begins with a quote from the news about “another night of rioting in England, as police clash with youth in several cities”. This is serious stuff: the first six songs are titled, “Need Your Love”, “London’s Burning”, “Trembling Hands”, “The Sea Is Calling”, “Miracle”, and “This Isn’t Happiness”. While the guitars still quiver and quake, the dominant instruments are the synthesizers, which the Temper Trap try to make both dark and danceable.
This has been done successfully before by many groups, like the recently defunct Handsome Furs, who specialized in growling in the face of imminent apocalypse accompanied by banks of electronics and shards of fuzzy guitars. The Handsome Furs could do this because their singer, Dan Boeckner, excelled at singing everything like the world was about to end, and if he didn’t act now, and sing whatever he was singing, he (and all his listeners) would keel over on the spot. Mandagi’s voice is more suited to the other side of indie-pop, the Grizzly Bear / Animal Collective part of the spectrum where falsetto is a requirement for entry. “Need Your Love” starts with a thick bank of ominous synthesizers, but Mandagi can’t match their tone: He repeats the title phrase over and over in an attempt to give it meaning, but it’s hard to really feel his need. “Where Do We Go From Here” stutters and bounces low to the ground, but Mandagi sounds weirdly warm and carefree. The Temper Trap’s lyrics haven’t improved much either. “Miracle” begins, “A little shade will grow into a tree / Leaving us in wonder as it sleeps / Who on Earth can fathom, who on Earth can know / You are but a thought in your maker’s eyes / And I may not always believe / But you’re nothing short of a miracle”. This wouldn’t have made it onto the soundtrack of The Lion King.
The Temper Trap want to be a very serious band making grandiose music. Grandiose music can be very successful, accepting all listeners in its hugeness and making them feel like anything might be possible. But the Temper Trap are rarely able to achieve this. Their instrumentation is not potent enough to overwhelm their poor lyrics, and their lead singer hasn’t figured out how to use his voice in a way that moves masses.