[20 August 2009]
There’s no denying that Sam Roberts is impressively well-versed in the art of reciting lines from the great American songbook. Over the course of three albums, the Juno-Award-winning songwriter has charted a path through the well-traveled realm of bluesy roots rock, twanging out rock and roll bombast and bittersweet, kicked-in-the gutter balladry with endearing underdog toughness. Adhering once again to this proven, albeit anachronistic, formula on Love at the End of the World, Sam Roberts and company retool their going-down-swinging brand of electrified blues into an album of inoffensive rock and roll duds.
Unlike American roots rock contemporaries Blitzen Trapper or Wilco, the Sam Roberts Band consistently eschews innovation in favor of more conventional tricks. The result is inevitably as listenable as it is boring. Intricately calculated guitar melodies erupt into catchy power-pop sing-a-longs, bluesy barroom piano chords break into cheesy oh-oh-oh choruses, and bouncy riffs pound into straight ahead blue-collar rock and roll. When the band finally changes gears and cranks up the reverb on atmospheric numbers “Up Sister” and “Walking the Dead”, their spacey guitar jams sound more like My Morning Jacket b-sides than a group branching outside its conventionally-established comfort zone.
Which isn’t to say that Love at the End of the World is a total disappointment. “Them Kids”, with its dueling melodies, hip-shaking backbeat, and directed cultural criticism, is the kind of old-school stand-up anthem that Roberts nails, shouting, “the kids don’t know how to dance to rock and roll” with a self-assured grit that suggests Steve Miller covering Bob Dylan. Despite playing back up to Roberts’ hardened tenor for most of the album, the other musicians in the band step out from behind his shadow for a few compelling moments as well. On the title track, for instance, the band notably manages to light up a bluesy guitar lick with enough squealing fervor and punk rock bravado to set a frenetic pace that the remainder of Love at the End of the World never quite matches.
But too much of the songwriting here rests on Roberts’ sagging shoulders. Appearing alternately bored and world-weary, Roberts seems content to wall his songs with nostalgic musings for a golden age of rock and roll that, contrary to what Roberts would have you believe, is not going to return. Songs like “End of the Empire” and “Detroit ’67” are so thematically rooted in the past, it’s tempting to tab the Sam Roberts Band as a tribute act to an entire era of musical history. When the quixotic Roberts finally addresses the future on “Up Sister”, he seems to recognize his own inadequacies as a songwriter. “Up sister, keep your head on. Living in the past but the past is gone/ Up sister, can your hear? The future is here, the future is here now.” Indeed, the future is here, and from what I can gather, Roberts wants nothing to do with it.
All contemporary style points aside, Love at the End of the World still falls flat on the weakness of Roberts’ own half-hearted convictions. Beyond bemoaning the state of rock and roll with antiquity-glorifying metaphors involving old westerns and assembly lines, Roberts’ lyrics never add up to more than a plea for optimistic resignation. “Just give me a reason to carry on,” Roberts pleads on “Words & Fire”, his existential crisis painfully exacerbated over tasteful fingerpicking and a corny piano line. Mirroring Roberts’ weary lyrical cues, the album’s production work favors bland, flawlessly sterile arrangements designed for contemporary rock radio. Roberts may have a point in that the kids have forgotten how to dance to rock and roll, but nothing on Love at the End of the World is going to teach them.