When American Music Club reunited in 2004, with the album Love Songs for Patriots, it became pretty clear why they had disbanded in the first place. Held up next to Patriots, their 1994 effort San Francisco sounded slack and overwrought. It sounded like an album by a band that had run out of ideas. Sure, the album had their slow, sad groove, with a few accessible flourishes, but it was an overlong creative step sideways. Love Songs for Patriots, however, sounded vital and fresh and honest and heartbroken and all of the other things great American Music Club albums sound like. It did run on a little longer than it should—most likely a hangover not only from the band’s ‘90s output, but from singer Mark Eitzel’s solo work—but overall it was a real return to form and a logical next step in the band’s career.
The band has returned with another record, their ninth overall, titled The Golden Age. And while it may not have the highs of its predecessor, it is a more consistent effort overall. The 55-minute running time doesn’t feel at all too long for their lovelorn balladry, since they shake it up with just the right amount of tinkering from lead guitarist Vudi.
The Golden Age opens and closes strong. “All My Love” unsurprisingly features Eitzel’s acoustic guitar and honeyed vocals. “I wish that we were always high,” he sings at the top of the song, and he sounds like he means it. His melancholy is in top form as his voice floats over the track, airy and fragile with feeling. The band immerses us in the song, surrounding us with lush instrumentation, drawing us into the dream. It’s so alluring that when the second track, “The Victory Chair”, starts up, Eitzel’s voice at regular volume sounds strident and jarring. They settle into the song eventually, but its beginning sounds like Eitzel is waking us up after just singing the lullaby that lulled us to sleep in the first place.
“The Decibels and the Little Pills” is probably the best song here. Together with the excellent “The Sleeping Beauty”, it anchors the first half of the record. It couples the dream state of the band’s best ballads with an up-tempo shuffle that drives the ambling lyrics along. It also gives us our first, and best, anthemic chorus of the album, as the band help Eitzel out as he sings, “No one here is gonna save you.” It’s a moment that might sound empty and cynical for a lot of singers, but not so with Eitzel.
For better or worse, Eitzel offers a laid-bare honesty in his songs. He works hard to earn your trust. Somewhere in his delivery, or in his unapologetically sentimental and heartfelt lyrics, he convinces us of his sincerity. So when he sings through his teeth about those around him, about how “names are only good for gravestones”, we know he’s not succumbing to blind cynicism, but rather letting us know that he’s been burned a good number of times. He’s not beaten, but he can still be pissed off.
Luckily, his moments of bitterness are often off-set by moments sublime. “All the Lost Souls Welcome You to San Francisco” is a poppy, all-inclusive sing-along that helps hold up the same-sounding middle of the album. The final two tracks, “On My Way” and “The Grand Duchess of San Francisco” show off Eitzel’s balladeer side and Vudi’s ability to work squalls of guitar distortion and feedback into the most unassuming and quiet of tracks. Thanks to him, there’s an energy that pulses behind the most forlorn of these beautiful tracks. Yeah, Eitzel and company still overindulge in navel-gazing and slow-trudge tempos, but they overcome it on The Golden Age with a confident and mature subtlety throughout. It may not be their best effort, but it is more than enough evidence that they should keep on going.
// Notes from the Road
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