[25 October 2007]
When the Thrills released their first album, 2003’s So Much for the City, the debut was lauded for its marriage of country-inflected folk to a nearly worshipful take on Brian Wilson’s sunny, dense pop sound. The love letter to Wilson and his California from a band of Irish newcomers was dripping in charm and a sense of idealized romanticism for foreign shores, and critics were quickly taken in, especially by the idea of a pop-rock band incorporating liberal use of banjo into its music. The album was nominated for a Mercury Prize, and a lot of expectations hung on the future of the Thrills.
Returning in 2004 with Let’s Bottle Bohemia, the sophomore effort found the Thrills trading in their green and verdant homeland for California itself, moving away from the folk, burying the banjo, and opting for a sprawling, ultra-rich pop album that reveled in its own glossiness. Continuing to show reverence for Brian Wilson, the band even managed to recruit Van Dyke Parks to contribute a strings arrangement, but more than anything else, the Thrills seemed to confront the glitz of modern-day California with a wide-eyed tourist’s joy. Though the album’s material was road-inspired and composed of reflections on fame and otherness, the Thrills seemed to have soaked up a hearty dose of sun and glamour in their time on the West Coast, and reflected it back from the lenses of mirrored sunglasses. While the swirling and string-heavy pop of single “What Ever Happened to Corey Haim” powered some success, critics predictably lamented the choice to move from smoothed-out pop to an even more highly buffed and polished style.
Having taken a bit of a break, Teenager finds the Thrills once more recording away from home, this time in Vancouver, however it is a return to familiar territory of sorts, as the album was produced by Tony Hoffer, the star indie producer who helped shape So Much for the City. And while the banjo doesn’t make a prominent return, Teenager does turn to the pared-back sound of the Thrills’ debut album. It’s still bright and poppy, but it hasn’t been quite so waxed to a sheen.
Teenager is, however, a shift away from romantically regarding a mythical California. Instead, it is a thematically cohesive look at the phase of life marked by its title. While a fair dose of pop and rock music exists already as a reflection of adolescent dreams and sorrows, Teenager marks itself by being, more specifically, a gazing back in time, at times wistful and nostalgic, and at others marked by the expanded wisdom of hindsight. Rather than directly expressing or aping the lusts and furies of youth, the Thrills present a collection of songs from the perspective of young adulthood—one that is still enamored of teenaged experiences, filled with fond memories and regrets, but understanding that those days are past. As stated in “Should’ve Known Better”: “A harbor dies / I didn’t live my youth with sufficient recklessness / Yeah, I envy your youth / Yes, I envy your youth”. At its sunniest, it’s celebratory, and at its most melancholy it resolves as almost post-adolescent angst.
Musically, Teenager leaps out like the Thrills have pretty casually picked up where Bohemia left off, albeit in more sober arrangements. The chiming steel guitar and strings over grandiose piano pop clearly fall into the same camp as contemporary British arena pop—a little Coldplay, a little Keane, a little brogue-ish—but in the context of the band’s prior releases, “The Midnight Choir” is familiar ground for the Thrills. When the song builds to buzzing bridge and soft vocal harmonies, all the pieces we’ve come to expect settle into place. “This Year” follows suit, though with a guitar melody that sounds suspiciously like the lifting phrases that drive Arcade Fire’s “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)”, but propelled more by Conor Deasy’s plaintive croon and waves of cresting instrumentation.
Where “This Year” is filled with the sort of bright-eyed hope for the future that marks the teenaged desire to break free of limited possibilities, “Nothing Changes Round Here” harkens back to the small-town ennui of “One Horse Town”, driven by acoustic strums draped in bursts of shoegaze electrics. Unfortunately, the Thrills’ greatest strength (and simultaneous weakness) is exposed on “Restaurant”, where Deasy’s voice is stranded to remain the focal point of a spare ballad. Deasy is compelling (or irritating, depending on your tastes) because of his voice, which seems to slink in and out of the melodies and thick compositions when he’s backed by full-throated arrangements. But his creaky, even greasy, vocals stray too close to shrill when left to their own devices. And unlike some of his contemporaries, rather than seeming overly-sentimental when left to spin out an earnest tale of loss, his croak and warble are simply distracting.
And that’s more or less the course that Teenager takes. The Thrills drift between moments of subdued and twangy reflection that recall their debut, and intersperse those with swings toward the densely layered stadium pop of Let’s Bottle Bohemia. However, Hoffer knows how to rein these boys in a bit, and even when the production is a stew, there’s just enough restraint that it matches the nostalgic tension of these songs’ themes. There are times when the croon and pop settles into brilliant moments of charm, as on “No More Empty Words” and its Motown-meets-Mersey feel, and the title track takes on a sort of well-orchestrated lugubriousness that matches the sweep of teenaged absorption. As Deasy creaks through the chorus of “If I could go back / A teenager again / If I could go back / I’d trip over again / But where would I fall / And who would break my fall”, there’s a haunted steel guitar that threads through the wall of ringing guitars to drive home the regretful emotion.
But when Deasy has to carry the melody, his faltering vocals don’t really serve to propel the songs in the way they deserve. “Should’ve Known Better” and “I’m So Sorry” are both weighted down by a thin vocal performance that undercuts the very capable band that backs Deasy. As a simple acoustic pop-rock band, the Thrills are fantastic, yet the vocalist always remains the center of attention; it seems that Conor Deasy is most compelling when he’s singing with a grin, playing charming crooner rather than sad-eyed and earnest folkster. And that’s driven home with the rousing, sunny-future anthem “There’s Joy to Be Found … the Boy Who Caught All the Breaks” that takes the album out of its backward-looking obsession and ends things on a forward-thinking sense of resolution. Here, even when Deasy gets thin, his lack of mope saves the sentiment.
Teenager is a good album, and as a bit of a humble reflection on adolescence it’s almost refreshing in its disinterest in wallowing in miseries or anger. The bulk of the material expresses the common desire to leave the confines of youthful surroundings, and the teenaged romances that seemed tragically unfulfilled. The “you” in all the lyrics is typically a lover or a crush, and the regrets are usually the narrator’s misgivings at not living up to the potential of the other. Where there’s heartbreak, it’s tempered by an acknowledgement that self-absorption was the largest cause. If anything, it’s a nostalgia that’s apologetic, sorry for the problems that youth couldn’t see and thus couldn’t mend. And if it’s angsty, it’s usually for the loss of the potential embodied in our teenaged selves.
As a continuation of the Thrills’ career, however, Teenager is a mixed blessing. It regains some of the earnestness lost on Bohemia, but it feels equally regressive at times. The band is in fine form, and the compositions are solid, but they seem like they’re covering the same ground, and the freshness of a debut is never sustained three albums on. It’s when they shoot for a giant pop sound that the band really soars. There’s still a ton of promise in the Thrills, and in that sense they seem much like the teenagers they fondly reminisce on here. As they put this past behind them, there’s the hope for that joy to be found in the present and future as they continue to mature.