[14 November 2013]
Denton, Texas’ Midlake is not a band to shy away from ambition. At least since the release of second album The Trials of Van Occupanther (2006), the band’s thematic interests have concerned nothing less than humankind’s place in the world. Like the narratives of Terrence Malick, Midlake’s songs point the mind and the heart to the natural world and the fascination it holds for man, even (or especially) when he feels he’s walking alone. In describing their songs, one tries to find words more descriptive than “rustic” or “druidic”, but often those are the best fit. The sonic qualities of Midlake, including piano and flute, are immediately engaging, making no bones about the many 1960s and 1970s folk and rock antecedents that influence the band.
All of these elements have a special meaning on Antiphon, the new album that emerges following a period of transition. A year ago, longtime singer and songwriter Tim Smith left the band. He told his band mates that most of the material from the past two years of writing and recording would not be available to them. In hindsight, the lineup’s last effort together (2010’s masterpiece The Courage of Others) could be interpreted as offering hints about Smith’s isolation (as an artist, a perfectionist, a would-be ascetic, etc.). Among the many telling lyrics on that album was this passage from “Small Mountain”: “Upon that road I had struggled to find / A way of life that was common for all / And all that runs on the mountain was mine / A way of life that will surely be gone.”
Despite its compositional and contemplative beauty, The Courage of Others was also a very heavy album. That it now exists as the final statement of the “classic” Midlake lineup recasts its lyrical themes as life’s real burdens: The ceaseless passing of time, the need for leave-taking, and the temptation to entirely retreat from human contact. As if predestined, these concerns have transferred from the band’s songs to the band’s structure. The choice to continue on as Midlake without Smith gives the band members an opportunity to go wherever they want stylistically. As the result of and response to these events, Antiphon is both familiar and different. It is neither entirely bound to the band’s past identity nor pressured to become something unrecognizable. Eric Pulido, promoted to frontman and performing quite ably, works together with the other five members of the studio and live band to make an impression that he characterizes as “less folk and more rock; less nostalgic and more progressive.”
Mixed by proven reinvigorator Tony Hoffer, Antiphon delivers on those stated goals. The album is more sonically adventurous than much of the band’s back catalogue. The title track features McKenzie Smith’s drumming (busier than ever) and guitar and synthesizer sounds that promise previously unplumbed levels of energy and spontaneity. Effectively unleashing the band from Smith’s controlling perspective, “Antiphon” plays like Midlake’s version of “Nothing is the News”, Damien Jurado’s equally unexpected prog-influenced opener from last year’s Maraqopa.
It must be said that Smith’s precision was a double-edged sword. While his specificity of vision is reported to have stifled productivity and collaboration, it also bore that remarkable first half of The Trials of Van Occupanther, as well as the enveloping The Courage of Others, on which he ascended to the height of his forest canopy and narrated the view. Some of Antiphon‘s forward steps feel like unnecessary indulgences that could benefit from additional editing/control. For instance, the wide-open drums of the title track are needlessly fill-happy on other songs like “Provider” and “This Weight”. Improvisatory instrumental “Vale” seems out of place. Is it the product of musicians having fun with their newfound room to breathe, or is it one of the dead ends that brought the old version of the band to a halt? Regardless of which is closest to the truth, the song and its placement in the sequence threaten to stop the propulsive forward motion of the album up to that point. “Vale” is especially questionable as it follows “It’s Going Down”, a song that seamlessly blends voices, guitars, and keys in the classic Midlake style, attesting to a formula that needn’t necessarily be broken.
The most effective songs on Antiphon are those that one-up the band’s former approach with confidence, skill and purpose. “Ages” hasn’t received much attention, but it’s the most striking song here. Its lyrics are ambiguous, but they plant the idea of impermanence – a concept that fuels the urgency of the song. The third minute of the song introduces brief but fascinating feats of musicianship and mixing. A heartbeat-like drum pattern that has been part of the song throughout, emerges and becomes a dramatic object of focus as a wayward synthesizer line rises to rival the album’s guitar skronk. The synthesizer approximates (and then begets) a guitar solo. It’s a combination of sounds that would have broken the mood of The Courage of Others, but here they constitute the lifeblood of Antiphon.
When initially announcing details of the album, the band issued a statement that said Antiphon “represents an ultimate genesis both musically and spiritually.” While “Ages” most represents Midlake’s musical evolution, “Provider” and “Provider Reprise” hint at the spiritual breakthrough. The lyrics of the chorus are those of a prayer that allude to the aphorism about there being no atheists in foxholes: “Provider, carry on / Far from the golden age / Follow me down a foxhole in the ground / Don’t delay”. The old Midlake would have meditated circularly on the trench in the ground, but this Midlake recognizes that nature (in and of itself) is a limited source of deliverance. “Provider Reprise” closes the album much in the style of Radiohead’s “Motion Picture Soundtrack”. There are subtler ways to announce a band’s symbolic rebirth. But the remaining members of Midlake, in their sincerity, have earned the right not to hold back.