Zeroes and Ones, the 12th release from a band that’s been around for a couple of decades first and foremost proves that they are one of the most consistent bands in recent rock ‘n’ roll history. They rank with Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo, and Steve Wynn. Some times passes, we wonder if there will be another Eleventh Dream Day record, and then it appears. It’s just at the horizon, glimmering with the grace of solid songwriting, musicianship, and voices that float out of your speakers like its 1975 and you’re exploring the USA with a pack of smokes and a full tank of gas in your enormous Buick.
At the end of the opener, “Dissolution”, Rick Rizzo repeats the phrase “I’ve come undone” many times over. It’s a sincere moment in a great song. It seems to signal an internal struggle—in Rizzo, in the band—that was almost the end but instead became the starting point in a search for something new. This feeling permeates Zeroes and Ones. It’s quite fascinating. After all these years together, and surviving a marriage and subsequent divorce besides who knows what else, Eleventh Dream Day have created this wonderfully lost-sounding piece of work. Hearing it is starting to understand the difference between youthful exuberance and middle-aged frustration. The younger person insists on her or his vision of the world, which can be thrilling if flawed and innocent. An older person, having dealt with the passage of time, offers this searching quality that hopefully begets brief moments of true insight. “Don’t hedge your bets”, Rizzo and Janet Beveridge Bean sing on the aptly titled “New Rules”. Elsewhere, the lyrics point in the same direction: “I don’t believe in change” (“Insincere Inspiration”), “I left a puzzle behind / Nothing says you have to finish” (“New Rules”), and the beautiful and heartbreaking “To soar in flight is the best we can dream / Or maybe it leads to utter disappointment / Grounded by what we need from each other” (“Lost in the City”).
Musically, Eleventh Dream Day has melted together their early bar-band sound with the improvisational space that was played with and favored on some later recordings. This is a band that has spent a lifetime in music and it shows. Classic rock, AM radio pop, L.A. psychedelia, post-punk, and jazz all make appearances on Zeroes and Ones. Some styles are mere hints in a bar or two, but the band makes it all matter. The first listen won’t necessarily blow you away; this is a record that takes some time to root. After the first half-dozen listens, though, it’s apparent that five, 10 years from now you will still be pulling this one out. It simply seeps in. If it’s your first Eleventh Dream Day record, you’ve picked a great starting point. If it’s your tenth, you won’t be disappointed.
Saying enough, and the right things, about this record is a difficult task. There’s not one specific moment of transcendent greatness, yet it will slowly take hold with its serious determination. Musically, it sounds as if every note were played as hard as possible. Lyrically, it’s the same thing: the words are rather sparse but extremely weighted. It’s uncertain as to whether a large audience would appreciate this, but then it’s frustrating to think they wouldn’t as it’s so extremely rooted in how Life can start to feel as the years pile on. It’s uncertain as to whether a younger audience would appreciate it, but the playing and sincerity are so real it seems a shame they would miss it due to the place they are in their world. In the end, after many listens, it’s apparent that the entirety of Zeroes and Ones is an exercise in that transcendent greatness, the kind that comes with internal struggle and introspection. To hear it played out is a blessing, even if you don’t believe in that sort of thing.