Like a good movie score, Film School’s second release for Beggar’s Banquet masterfully captures and packages a mood: a tactfully dead-pan form of melancholy. Driven by the strength of the ensemble as a whole, tracks like “Florida” build to ambitiously gloomy climaxes, filled with electronic fireworks and unsettling harmonies. But what Hideout lacks, to its detriment, is something else—something beyond that persistent, nondescript gloominess. In this sense, Film School begs comparison with its former tour-mates, The National.
The National’s most recent release, Boxer, is the soundtrack to a netherworld filled with perpetually gray skies. In fact, the album’s twelve tracks never even offer up major tempo changes to break the monotony. But Matt Berninger’s witty—even, at times, brilliant—lyrics make the album an affecting, engaging piece of art. A good soundtrack and an even better script. Film School doesn’t have that second element, period. Listening to Hideout is like staring at the sky on a particularly dark and moonless night. Nice for a while, if you’re in the right mood. But a whole hour of just that?
Set back in the mix and buried in more reverb than any standing cathedral could ever furnish (Film School is, sonically, Joy Division for the Pro Tools generation) the melody to “Go Down Together” is filled with internal conflict. Its chorus ends up being one of the album’s strongest. But in addition to being all but inaudible at parts, the verses do no justice to the aesthetically-intriguing soundscapes that are supposed to be there to support them. “On the phone to make it right / I’m still looking for a sign / Could we leave this all behind?” songwriter Greg Bertens refrains. Relationship clichés like that are plentiful on Hideout, even after the sound engineer’s apparent efforts to bury those creative shortcomings.
On “Plots and Plans,” Film School almost gets it right. While the “plan” there is still secondary to the soundtrack, Bertens at least makes the two work well together. Musing on a night procession and the prospect of faking one’s own death, the colors of the words sit well with the colors of the melodies. But again, you end up yearning for something else, something other than a carefully assembled picture of sadness. Inevitably, you ask yourself, But why? At the chorus, even “Plots and Plans” proves itself to be a confused love song, so Bertens can’t fall back on the one catchall explanation that seems to redeem so much art: he can’t claim he’s expressing the inexpressible. And if this album is really all driven by love—that which Bertens sometimes has and sometimes longs for—I’m not convinced that he has chosen the right means, or genre, of self-expression.
While the band’s self-titled first release for Begger’s Banquet was a promising moment for the post-punk revival movement, Hideout suggests we must come to terms with, if not the demise, the inherent limitations of the trend. Production simply can’t redeem a project based, in the end, on aesthetic imitation.
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