Maturation is an ugly process. It often feels like a pyrrhic victory in a battle between conflicting sets of expectations. Most of us make it to the other side with but a few splintered fragments of our once all-encompassing personal fables. We learn to do the best that we can. We learn that times change and passions fade. Yet, there are others who never seem to grow up, forever floating at the center of a world of bored spectators. And still others who deny what they are and force themselves into ill-suited sets of easy clothes. At times, we all hopelessly ping-pong between moments of timid denial and hesitant acceptance.
Unfortunately for Davey von Bohlen, he gets to live out this nasty process on record. With the Promise Ring he cultivated a deliriously catchy, sugar-high sound that launched a thousand emo ships, but by the last of that band’s four albums, he had significantly mellowed his shtick. The songs got slower and a trend toward introspection replaced goofy lyrics about Cherry Coke and Air Supply. At times, this change felt more like a forced diversion than a natural progression, as if von Bohlen was fighting the urge to write the pop song that everyone expected. The years of child-like ebullience seemed sadly replaced by the creaky hinges of growing pain—pain that is inevitable but still somehow regrettable. In order to truly come to terms with change, we must replace what was lost with something as equally gratifying. With Maritime, von Bohlen exists in a tenuous present that gives a nod to his past, but busily prepares for a more uncertain future.
The core of Maritime is von Bohlen, Promise Ring drummer Dan Didier, and former Dismemberment Plan bassist Eric Axelson. Axelson’s bass heroics were well-documented on the D Plan’s recorded output, but with Maritime he keeps it simple, supplanting arty flash with solid rock support. The focus here is von Bohlen. “The Window Is the Door” opens the album with his warm, crackling voice over a gently strummed acoustic guitar. Bits of electric noise shimmer and build towards the double tracked refrain of “I’m not your way out.” The song is certainly von Bohlen’s finest foray into the realm of melancholy, but fans will probably still struggle with the trade-offs.
Trade-offs that may seem unnecessary when compared with the pure pop immediacy of tracks like “Someone Has to Die”, “James”, and “Adios”. These songs serve as a shining reminder of why the bouncy melodies and big smiles of the Promise Ring earned von Bohlen such a devoted following. But the material doesn’t feel like pure reminiscence; there are sure signs of positive growth and a deeper cognizance of rock ‘n’ roll history. Each of these numbers bristles with rich instrumentation, featuring a hearty mix of keys, horns, and strings. The slow dance material is equally orchestrated. In fact, songs like “King of Doves”, “Souvenirs”, and “I’m Not Afraid” are all pleasantly sad, well-played, and thoughtfully conceived.
Somehow, though, the boyish von Bohlen still seems miscast in the role of pained balladeer. At times, these tracks strain to find a middle ground between pop stardom and thoughtful reverence. The album’s final cut comes a lot closer to achieving this dialogue. “Human Beings” opens with a lush, atmospheric sadness that nicely complements von Bohlen’s precious vocals. The dynamics and changes are rewarding and leave the listener with the distinct feeling that there could be a compelling reason for all this growing up. With a little more time to figure things out, it’s entirely possible that von Bohlen and crew could come up with an album full of compelling reasons. For now, we’ve got the present. As awkward as it is at times, we’re lucky to be here.
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// Notes from the Road
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