Maybe, no matter how strong the Twilight Sad can sound, there's just a ceiling on this kind of expansive rock. Because for all the thunder here, we only get a few lightning strikes.
No one could knock the strength of the Twilight Sad's sound on their last record, Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters, and songs like "Cold Days From the Birdhouse" were as titanic and brooding as rock music gets. But the album's detractors also claimed that its monolithic sound was, well, a little too "mono". But on Forget the Night Ahead, if the band aren't necessarily out to prove anything, they are certainly moving more towards melody and variety of texture here, giving us a subtler side of their sound that loses none of its power, and actually comes off as a darker slab of songs than its predecessor.
Never mind the obvious experiments here (like the three minutes of swirling grind that is "Scissors"). The biggest surprises on this record seep out slowly through the noise, instead of insisting on themselves. The opening "Reflection of the Television" has the thundering drums, and the guitars churn and froth away, but the focus has shifted from the storm to its eye, where James Graham smoothes his thick, curling voice into a heartbroken croon. Even when the song reaches its breaking point, the instruments don't overwhelm his voice, nor does he resort to strident bleating. Everything stays even and tense and affecting.
On "Seven Years of Letters", the guitars get that edge sanded down to a crisp riff, as the band offer their most stripped-down sound to date. Graham is out front drawing us in with a beautiful melody and his knack for capturing mood in a seemingly simple line -- here he insists "there's a chance that we're running scared". And "Made to Disappear" is a nice followup to "Seven Years of Letters", as it takes the same tunefulness and starts building a bridge back to the band's usual expanse. There's still enough tempered echo and space to fit a tight hook, but it stretches out and grows with a power that, even if we've seen it from them plenty, can still be staggering.
But while there is variety in the texture here, and a better focus on setting each song apart from the one before it, there's still a feeling that this record wears itself out much like its predecessor. Strangely, nothing makes this more apparent than the album's biggest standouts. "I Became a Prostitute" and "That Birthday Present" work because they rise out of the overcast rumbling of their sound and up the energy. Graham, whose singing is under control throughout the record, lets loose, wailing from out of some dark cave on "I Became a Prostitute". And the drums take the band on their back for "That Birthday Present" and push the song from slow march to full gallop.
These songs stand out because, for all the thunder we here on Forget the Night Ahead, they are the only real strikes of lightning. There's something to be said for restraint, but at some point here it spills over into a reliance on midtempo grinding. Perhaps, then, it's not a question of variety at all. Maybe, no matter how strong the Twilight Sad can sound, no matter how loud the drums can rumble and the guitars slash, there's just a ceiling on this kind of expansive rock. Once "That Birthday Present" ends, the record settles into a pleasant but too settled rumble. Even on the more uptempo "The Neighbours Can't Breathe" there's a promise that never quite gets fulfilled. It starts with lively clanging and thickly layered notes, and ends in the same miasmic brooding we've heard before.
Of course, there's nothing necessarily wrong with any of this. The guys know their sound, and shift enough so you don't think feel they've made the same album twice. And "I Became a Prostitute" is as bracing a rock song as you're apt to hear this fall, but the record as a whole comes off as smaller than its best parts. It's a different darkness this time out from the Twilight Sad, but eventually you still find yourself missing the light.