[9 May 2006]
Intensity is such a vague piece of critical prattle. We can recite all the clichés of how it wails through Bono’s voice, through Joy Division’s pain-plagued riffs, through Kurt Cobain’s live leaps into drums. We know it’s what elevates the Foo Fighters from derivative retreads to gut-busting transcendence. Ask us to define it, though, and you might as well ask us to divide by zero.
Not that it matters. Because when the intensity isn’t there, it’s noticeable. It sounds complacent, fat, and unchallenging. It sounds a little bit like the Stills’ second album, Without Feathers.
What’s disappointing is that the Montreal four-piece is the last band you would expect a lack of intensity from. Say what you like about their massively popular debut album, Logic Will Break Your Heart: it was derivative, it was self-conscious, it was the best Interpol album made in Canada. But songs like their hit single, “Still In Love Song”, worked because of the slow simmer the band performed them with. These new songs? “Halo the Harpoon”, the supposedly atmospheric boiler, is done with about a bubble of passion.
To be fair, they’ve made a conscious effort to distance themselves from their previous image as Interpol-lite. The carefully textured post-punk sound of Logic has been replaced with sunny guitar heroics; this becomes immediately clear with the opener, “In the Beginning”, a big-guitar anthem that resembles Nada Surf’s “Almost Love”. Without Feathers is not just an Interpol album that smiles—it’s pretty much a total reinvention, abandoning all the post-punk roots the Stills started with.
This would have worked, of course, if the Stills had penned ten explosive rock tunes to just knock our socks off (a la the aforementioned Foo Fighters). Without Feathers opens promisingly enough; early track “The Mountain” features Gallagher-style guitar heroics in multitudes. There’s a proliferation of hooks throughout, ensuring each track is at least listenable, and some pure pop successes as well: “Destroyer” features a completely incongruous horn part that is nevertheless massively enjoyable.
But it doesn’t take long before half-baked tracks like “It Takes Time” turns numbingly repetitive, “Oh Shoplifter” loses its handclapping novelty, and “Helicopter” just fades, and the lack of intensity is revealed: there’s just no reason to keep listening. Even the tracks featuring stronger songwriting fail to stay compelling. Much of the blame lies upon Tim Fletcher, who apparently decided to reinvent his mood-and-gloom vocal style into something far higher and blander; where it was perfect for the post-punk of Logic, here it simply cannot sustain songs on top of the wall of guitars.
As a result, nothing soars. It’s suitably catchy, and no doubt some songs will find a sizeable fanbase. But there is a significant problem when the album’s best song is “Baby Blues”, featuring a duet with Emily Haines—and all you can think of is how much better it would have been if Metric had just done the whole damn thing.
Most of the time, reinventions get the benefit of the doubt. It takes a real act of courage for a band to mess with an established sound—especially if it’s been commercially successful—in order to pursue their own creative interests. But Without Feathers represents an exception. It’s tough to root for a band that reinvents itself half-heartedly, and it’s difficult to see what they had to gain: their core fanbase will likely be alienated by the simplified pop sound, and the tepid new songs are unlikely to win new converts.
Sometimes we forget why reinventions are so impressive; it’s because they’re so difficult to pull off. Without Feathers, while not terrible, is the mediocre representative of what happens when bands attempt it without the necessary artistic passion.