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Owen Thomas

Languages {Or: Get Dark & Find Yourself}

(Absorb.; US: 25 Nov 2012; UK: Import)

Much like the too-soon departure of the Elms, the announcement for lead singer Owen Thomas’ solo debut happened very quickly. Languages {Or: Get Dark & Find Yourself.} dropped online the same day it was released, with only non-specific hints leading up to it. For fans of the Elms, there couldn’t be any news better than this; after the four-piece Indiana rock band amicably dissolved in 2010, many have likely been wondering what would come next for the individual members of the group. After all, the Elms ended on their creative high peak: the Black Keys and the White Stripes may have gotten all the love during the “rock revival” of the ‘00s, but records like the Elms’ The Chess Hotel and especially The Great American Midrange were some of the best Millennial rock and roll ever put to tape. The latter record was truly something special, which made the break-up of the band all the more devastating. When they released a forty-track retrospective Stoppin’ On a Dime in 2010, which featured several unreleased songs, it was a wonder they had decided things needed to end. If anything, it appeared as if they were headed for much better things. But the decision has been made, and though there are only four studio LPs to remember the Elms by, they are all still as vital as when they were released. And if Languages {Or: Get Dark & Find Yourself.} is any indication, the spirit of Midwestern rock that was so vivacious in the Elms has found a worthy successor in Thomas’ solo career. However, this isn’t to say that things haven’t changed.


At first glance, it may appear that Thomas’ solo career is but another name for the Elms 2.0. Guitarist Thom Daugherty and drummer Christopher Thomas both appear on Languages, and some of these songs could have been Elms b-sides if given some minor tweaks. But what’s immediately noticeable about this album in comparison to the oeuvre of the Elms is how subdued the music is. Languages certainly does rock, but it doesn’t do so in the barnstorming way that the Elms did. Thomas here opts for a streamlined approach, with the intent of emphasizing the emotive, personal quality of the music above all else. Further evidence for this comes in the deluxe edition of the album, which comes with a personalized message from Thomas himself. Languages isn’t a punch to the gut like many great rock records are, but that isn’t what it’s meant to do. Rather, it’s about showing a particular musician’s journey, for all the tumults, joys, and heartaches it contains.


This is where the subtitle of Languages, {Or: Get Dark & Find Yourself.}, comes from: whereas the lyrical matter of the Elms focused on life in the Midwest more broadly, Languages is all about Thomas, zooming in from the Midwest as a whole to one of its subjects. This is the first success of Thomas’ decision to go solo: the music here is lyrically distinct from anything he’s done before. His way with words is still great , capturing the vernacular of rock music he’s no stranger to. See “I Don’t Miss Carin’”: “I don’t miss / Carin’ about you / and I don’t miss / Thinkin ‘bout you / And I don’t miss / Talkin’ to you / And I don’t miss / Anything that you do.” His choice to make many of these songs slow-to-mid tempo is also an important one, creating a reflective quality in the music that’s necessary for someone trying to distance himself from a previous project known for liberal usage of amplifier-rattling riffs. Languages doesn’t really “get dark” as its title implies; the lyrics are of the heart-on-your-sleeve stuff that most earnest lyricists will strive for. There aren’t any revelatory songs here either musically or lyrically—it’s safe to say Thomas is still finding his footing as a solo artist—but in being able to distinguish himself as a musician distinct from the Elms, he overcomes one of the biggest hurdles a solo artist with a past band has to face.


The post-Elms environment has thus been a good one for Thomas. He began by founding Absorb, the creative house responsible for the release of Languages, and now he seems to be on the path to a fruitful solo career. Sad as it might have been for him to depart with his former band, the sagest bit of truth sung by Thomas on this record is, “What you don’t got / Is good.” It’s a nice, quasi-Biblical aphorism that harkens back to Thomas’ involvement with Christian labels in his early years as a musician, but more importantly it’s of the best pieces of evidence for his maturation as an artist. He’s someone aware of the allure of the past and the uncertainty of the future—“It’s just the future I was meant to leave behind” he sings on the confessional “Futures”—and is willing to take the trials involved in both and spin it into engaging art. Lyrics have always been Thomas’ greatest strength, and if nothing else Languages is well worth the price for the many pieces of wisdom it contains. It’s an album that comes close to feeling like a concept album, but one lacking a specific topic. The only recurring theme that underlies these 12 songs is Thomas himself, but like any artist should his voice is a constant presence throughout. “I’m probably not the safest bet,” he admits at one point. He might be right, but for now we can just be content that he’s followed up an already sterling career with an album that’s worth being proud of. If this is life after the Elms, then count me in.

Rating:

Brice Ezell is the Assistant Editor of PopMatters, where he also reviews music, film, and books, which he has done since 2011. He also is the creator of PopMatters' Notes on Celluloid column, which covers the world of film music. His writing also appears in Sea of Tranquility and Glide Magazine (formerly Hidden Track). His short story, "Belle de Jour", was published in 67 Press' inaugural publication The Salmagundi: An Anthology. You can follow his attempts at wit on Twitter and Tumblr if you're so inclined. He lives in Chicago.


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