The Polyphonic Spree, as an idea, is incredibly unwieldy. It’s likely that it’s that very idea, and not quite as much the sales or the music, that has managed to get The Polyphonic Spree dropped from major record labels twice already in its short, two album career. How do you promote a “band” with 24 members? How do you give that ever-desired “edge” to a happy-to-a-fault collective with a harpist? You don’t. They’re a headache, a nuisance whose sales numbers don’t justify their upkeep.
Ringleader/composer/shaman Tim Delaughter is behind the whole thing, and if his new album as head of The Polyphonic Spree is any indication, upkeep on the Spree probably isn’t as difficult as most of the men in suits imagine it to be, a point that one can hope new label TVT sees for itself. This is DeLaughter’s baby, and it sounds like the vision of one man—a cohesive, relentlessly optimistic take on the world and all of its problems, with hope, rather than the ever-popular beast of nihilism, being its driving force. While it’s easy to get lost in the presentation of it all, the matching outfits, the ten-voice choir, the obscure instruments, or the numbing logistics of the live show, The Polyphonic Spree is a pop band at heart. DeLaughter writes pop songs, bangs ‘em out on his keyboard or his guitar, and then he calls up his buddies to make them sound bigger, the way they sound in his head. Still, you could put as many strings, horns, flutes and theremins as you’d like on these songs, and they’d still be pop songs, with glorious, ingratiating pop hooks.
The new album is called
The Black Parade The Fragile Army, and it sees the Spree ditching the white robes (now memorialized in an emblem on their new outfit) for black fatigues and clip-on pieces of flair in the shape of red crosses and hearts. The message would be that this is a darker, more worldly version of The Polyphonic Spree, still clinging to hope but acknowledging the desperate state of the world. Apparently, its origins are in politics and protest, but these are songs that have been written with a sort of universality in mind, that broadens their appeal past that of the MoveOn set. Look at “The Fragile Army” itself, a song said to be inspired by a late-night viewing of a George W. State of the Union: “You tighten your back up/ Oooh, you’re so psychic/ We all want to know/ Did you marry the witch you’ve come to know?” Let’s ignore the fact that DeLaughter rhymed “know” with “know” for a moment. Maybe it’s flowery code for the observation that the new Bush was voted in based on name recognition, but it’s not a new observation nor a telling one—and it’s delivered in such a tremendously anthemic context as to completely bury any of the acidity such a statement could wield.
As it turns out, for better or for worse, The Fragile Army is at its best when you leave the lyrics behind and give in to the rapture of the music. DeLaughter’s taken a lot of flack for his supposed theft of ideas Wayne Coyne and his Flaming Lips came up with first, but while DeLaughter himself certainly sounds like a slightly less broken Wayne Coyne, it would seem that his musical vision may have shifted a bit. There’s an Arcade Fire-esque sense of build and drama to many of these songs, with the choir and extra instrumentalists adding drama to the pop song skeletons that DeLaughter has composed. It’s a winning formula—there are times when ten voices simply make more of an impact than one voice, times when, yes, a flute does seem like the perfect instrument for a delicate break in the vocals. There’s something viscerally appealing in the naïveté of a musical philosophy that invariably champions the “bigger is better” aesthetic.
Just try to resist the unforgettable stop-start riff of “Get Up and Go”. Try not to crack a smile when you hear the clip-clop of 20-plus pairs of feet marching in time when DeLaughter says “We’re marching left to right” in the resilient push of “Younger Yesterday”. Try to keep from moving along with the dance stomp of the relentless “Mental Cabaret”. You’d have to be pretty jaded to not get caught up in it all, at least a little bit.
Given the strength of the music and the shock of the Spree’s new choice of uniform, it is too bad that there isn’t something a little bit more biting, a little bit more revelatory in the lyrics beneath that music, the soul behind the uniforms. If anything, the lyrics of the album are more fuel for those who would deride the efforts of the band, calling its size a gimmick, and its music new age hippie crap. Those that will allow themselves to exist in a plane where those lyrics are merely noises made by mouths, however, will find themselves swept away by the eleven soaring anthems that Mr. DeLaughter is so happy to offer. It’s hard to discern just what cause this Fragile Army is fighting for; one can only assume that they’re fighting the “good” fight, whatever that means, but damn if they don’t look and sound like they’re headed for victory.