Nearly every single time Saturday Looks Good to Me has been mentioned by the music press, its leader Fred Thomas has been compared to Phil Spector. That might not change with the band’s new album Fill Up the Room, but it probably will. The reason Thomas might deserve the Spector comparison is the way he has amassed a tiny empire of releases in recent years and the fact that those releases are a testament to how well he writes songs for other people to sing. Those are possibly reasons why the comparison is so often made, too, though the main one is definitely how strongly most Saturday Looks Good to Me songs have used Spector and the “girl-groups” sound as a musical template. That isn’t true of Fill Up the Room, as it wasn’t of the even odder EP that preceded the album, Cold Colors.
Fill Up the Room definitely has traces of the 1960s pop and rock that Thomas so clearly loves: not just Spector but the Stones, Beatles, Beach Boys and so on. But its starting place is more of a seeking, questioning kind of orchestral folk-rock, seemingly influenced by a band whose style shone clearly on some of Thomas’ more obscure solo records: Neutral Milk Hotel. More precisely, it was Jeff Mangum himself whose mark could be felt on those solo records, and here too. It isn’t just the big-band, multi-instrument approach that Thomas is adopting. It’s mostly a style of songwriting based on visceral imagery and litanies of words, twisting in circles and mazes of melodies. Fill Up the Room heads in that direction without completely abandoning the short-and-sweet tack of the past. Anyone who likes the band mostly for the sugary, hook-filled tunes won’t be disappointed. They’ll just find the hooks living in a much different context. They’ll find a band no longer satisfied with just playing catchy pop songs.
This doesn’t represent an abrupt shift. The new style is an outgrowth not just of the ‘Fred Thomas’ releases but also the acoustic, solo-like songs on previous Saturday Looks Good to Me albums (“When the Party Ends” off Every Night, for example). But it is a new style, and Thomas seems determined to build Saturday Looks Good to Me into more of a proper band, around it, while still maintaining his place at the front. He sings lead most of the way through, excepting one song. And the number of instruments he plays bests that of any of the other 11 musicians listed as contributing. He plays guitars, bass, drums, piano, glockenspiel, tape loops and more. But he also has a tight band playing behind him, as he has on recent tours. Here he leads them through carefully arranged songs that occasionally turn sideways into wilder, if still restrained, jams.
Thomas also often employs devices that, purposefully or not, remind us how songs manipulate time and a certain type of space. A drone-like moment of near-silence comes halfway through “Money in the Afterlife”, making the song all the more forceful when it picks back up. Snippets of vocals, cut from the middle of a song, emerge again as the song fades: faintly there, like fading memories. Change is clearly a musical theme of Fill Up the Room. The album seems possessed by the notion that the snappy little pop songs of the band’s past were baby steps towards something greater. It’s an idea the lyrics approach as well. Thomas begins the second song, “(Even If You Die on the) Ocean”, like this: “I found the garden gate unlocked / so I went in and picked the perfect spot / where I could bury my youth.”
The “everybody dies” sentiment of that same song is just one reference to mortality on the album. The album is a body of change for the band, but the lyrics continually reference bodies: as a signpost of time passing, a manifestation of emotions and a means of action. On various songs, Thomas sings of eyes that go blind, lungs that shut down, hands buried in the snow (on two songs), teeth that grind, skin that shrinks, long-distance lovers acutely aware of the distance between their bodies, heartbroken ex-lovers whose memories are wrapped in skin. “Come With Your Arms” is a dark love song phrased in terms of the body. “Whitey Hands” is a lighter one that ends “Hold your hands up / and let that be our love.” “Let your body be a house,” Thomas sings earlier in that same song. If houses are filled with ghosts of the past, bodies are filled with those of the past and present.
Musically Fill Up the Room is also the most physical Saturday Looks Good to Me album. Thomas and bandmates fill the space of each song with more instruments than before, and hit them harder. They also occasionally sing as a chorus. The dynamic way the band members sing and play together resonates with the songs’ references to bodies and to raising voices up, whether to the sky, someone else or yourself. Fill Up the Room is filled with partly told stories of heartbreak and pain, but there’s also a strong sense of hope, one embodied by the music as well. The album cover image is of people raising their hands in the air, rays of light shining from them.