[17 August 2008]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Just over a year ago, it really seemed like 31Knots was getting somewhere. After a number of albums, their promise really started to take shape with Talk Like Blood and the Polemics EP. And 2007’s The Days and Nights of Everything Anywhere made good on that promise. It was as expansive as its title, without any of that name’s ambiguity. It combined their skewed guitar rock with elements of harsh electronica, and rode a three-ring circus of drama where Joe Haege served as the resident hocker, shouting his political diatribes with just enough self-deprecation to make them work. The band looked to have hit their stride.
Which is what makes Worried Well so perplexing, and disappointing. The progression they’d shown on their last few records hits a wall here, and the album retreads old ideas while stripping them of their strengths. The result is an album that is not only uneven, but lacks the knockout punches that kept any of the band’s previous albums afloat even when they went off course.
Right off the bat, something seems off. “Certificate”—the first real track after an unnecessary intro track—sounds too polished, the band’s usual guitar edge sanded down and tamed. “The Breaks” tries to incorporate the blips of electronica that worked so well on Days and Nights, but rather than bolster the track, they draw attention to how little is going on in the song. Even the new sweetness built into Haege’s shout—which is one of a few nice new additions to their sound—can’t make the song more than an awkward whine. “Take Away the Landscape” is mirrored after some more textured tracks from the band’s past, such as “Everything in Letters”, but it ignores the band’s sense of rhythm, which is the one thing they can’t operate without.
The album does have moments that work, in their way. “Something Up Here This Way Comes” is a fuzzed-out rocker, with a nice combination of scuffed atmosphere and irrepressible energy. And “Strange Kicks” is easily the best track, with rolling, quirky piano verses that break apart into hand-clapped and group-shouted choruses, all wrapped in an affective distance. In that song, you can feel the band’s frustration more than when having Haege shouting it at you.
But even with those bright spots, the album sets itself up to fail. Haege’s political ranting here is played straight, with little in the way of irony, and it comes off as irritatingly pretentious. He seems to be shouting down to his audience, instead of shouting for change along with them. Worried Well is also a poorly-timed and unfailingly negative record released in a time that, for people on Joe Haege’s side of the fence, should be full of hope and possibility. For those hoping for a change in the political climate—and 31Knots surely is (and they’re hardly alone)—now should be the moment when they embrace new chances rather than clinging to old or lingering frustrations. And when Haege sings “You live on a black list” in “The Breaks”, invoking once again a Big Brother picture, it rings empty. 31Knots have shown before that they can oppose the establishment with thoughtful and fun music, but they don’t seem to be having any fun on Worried Well. They sound worn out by the struggle in a time where one more burst of energy, from them or anyone, can go a long way.