[21 October 2007]
“You can’t have me.
I won’t go, I’m not yours to move,
With a beginning such as this—a melancholic, drum-free chant of resolute negativity trailed by a resigned organ and slightly deranged guitar squawk—you begin to think that the following hour will be an uncomfortably bleak affair. So it comes as something of a (not altogether unpleasant) surprise to find that Beartrap Island is livelier, catchier—dare I say poppier—album than could have been expected from its opening title track. Make no mistake - lyrically and thematically, it remains relentlessly pessimistic, but this pessimism is tempered by a musical warmth that prevents Rohner Segnitz’s vocal dejection from becoming overpowering.
In this respect, Beartrap Island is an album of juxtapositions and reflections - it is light against dark, hope against disconsolate acceptance, thematically the mirror image of its musical self. Take “Tigers”, for instance: aesthetically, one of the more spirited songs offered here, its bouncy keys and Segnitz’s sweet delivery carrying echoes of Death Cab For Cutie. And then you realise what he’s singing. “I want your blood inside my head”. Again and again: “I want your blood inside my head”. With this, the gleeful Casio of the song’s climax takes on a more sinister edge, while the jarring, cacophonous fuzz into which “Tigers” descends seems a peculiarly appropriate way to end such a jangly, poppy few minutes. Indeed, several songs on Beartrap Island end in such a way, this disintegration of the hitherto musically unthreatening into squalling dissonance seeming almost to illustrate an insurmountable weight upon Segnitz’s head. Seb Bailey’s hopeful guitar chimes on “Dayenu” are like a futile consoling hand, unable to sufficiently counter the bleakness carried by the concurrent lamentations of “I know nothing!... I learned nothing!... I found nothing!”, with the ensuing mess of distortion a fitting end-product.
Such unrelenting melancholy might seem likely to suffocate. In practice, it is alluring. This is in no small part down to the delivery, and its strength both in quality and multiplicity. Indeed, it is difficult to get bogged down in sobriety when it is enshrouded in the glorious pop hooks of “Ricky” or “Catch Your Death”. In fact, Beartrap Island‘s biggest asset, perhaps, is simply its sheer abundance of melody. There isn’t anything hugely groundbreaking going on here, but there is some sublimely captivating moments. Almost all of the fourteen tracks here contain something, maybe a riff, refrain or just a subtle turn in Segnitz’s voice, that nestles inside the head and refuses to leave. Even the title track’s dreamy, introductory sprawl comes armed with a melodious fragility perhaps deserving of more than the minute-and-a-half it is granted. The overtly morose “Hurricane”, meanwhile, is reminiscent of the Shins had they spent a few more years hiding in the shade, rather than bathing in the sunshine. There are sundrenched guitars here that would not seem out of place supporting James Mercer’s lucid imagery, which, combined with the relative obscurity of Segnitz’s pathos, lend the track an interestingly reflective aura.
But though Segnitz’s lyrics rarely gleam with positivity, admittedly, they do refrain from wallowing for wallowing’s sake in self-pity or dejection. Like Grandaddy’s Jason Lytle, his outlook on life may be darkened, but is nonetheless an interesting one, meaning the intrigue his words carry remains even when they are not easily relatable. There is a palpable sense of isolation and frustration, befitting of its title, pervading over much of Beartrap Island, something that becomes all the more interesting—though not altogether unsurprising, given the employment of juxtaposition of the album—considering its allusions to the Division Day’s hometown of Los Angeles (“After 13 months/ On Beartrap Island/ I’ll have learned the words/ To bring you down”). Naturally, then, when respite comes it is in the escapism of “To the Woods” (“Let’s dance and drink and laugh/Until the night is gone”) rather than in a celebration of life or circumstance.
Nevertheless, one trait of an album of such prominent darkness is the amplification of the light that is present. A case in point is “Littleblood”, the stomping off-kilter break of which would surely not be so startling were it not sandwiched between moments of melancholic yearning. Likewise, “Tap-Tap, Click-Click”‘s pendulum-swing cadence is noteworthy not only for its lush chorus but also for its incongruity on an album where foot-tapping opportunities are unsurprisingly few and far between.
To be sure, it is variety such as this which makes Beartrap Island palatable and enjoyable, transcending the lyrical continuity that could have rendered it heavy with gloom. Instead, the melodious warmth of Division Day’s music is the perfect counterweight to Segnitz’s cold isolation, meaning the poignant reflection is alluring rather than off-putting. And this appeal is a fine thing, for repeated listens uncover layers of wonderful melody amongst the poetic introspection. So Division Day’s exploratory voyage around Beartrap Island is many things at once: it is dense and dark, yet still pleasantly sweet at times and, though plaintive, it stands as a diverse album of fine, dreamy pop tunes.