I’ll freely admit that at first I didn’t get the Silent League. Too distracted by bandleader Justin Russo’s membership in Deserter’s Songs-era Mercury Rev, I found their debut, The Orchestra, Sadly, Has Refused, to be all gild and no lily, a bad extension of the parts of post-Deserter’s Songs Rev that I couldn’t stand. I haven’t heard 2007’s Of Stars and Other Somebodies, and maybe there were some clues there, but the magisterial But You’ve Always Been the Caretaker is so good it sent me back to those first songs to try and figure out what I’d missed.
Truthfully, I hadn’t missed much. That first album, some good songs that often sounds mawkish or overly dramatic, now seems to me like a perfect example of a great band not quite knowing how to get their greatness across. But You’ve Always Been the Caretaker is inescapably the work of the same sensibility as The Orchestra, Sadly, Has Refused, the difference is simply in presentation: Arrangement, production, even down to the sequencing and album art. This is at least partly to longtime collaborator/member Shannon Fields, who is also one of the forces behind the protean Stars Like Fleas.
Fields told me that “I wanted to make the Silent League record I always heard us making, but we had never made,” and they’ve succeeded fantastically. The Silent League has always been Russo’s baby, and it still is, but here their music has been burnished to a warm glow, sprouted all sorts of weird offshoots and angles, and generally converted most of their potential into an actually gorgeous, moving, surprising album. The first words Russo sings here are “Somehow I’ve changed into someone else / Without ever knowing”, and he’s not kidding.
This being the Silent League, their stock in trade is still sumptuous, swooning orchestral pop that owes as much to ’70s AM radio and classic crooners as anything else. But over the course of these 15 trim tracks, the band covers everything from muted interludes that sound a bit like an attempt to make a non-sampled version of the KLF’s Chill Out (the distant, restrained glam-funk of “Sleeper” is especially fun), to the sudden Bowie freakout in the otherwise stately “Here’s a Star”, to the piano-bar-after-closing ambience of the beginning of “I Go”, to the digital pop and burble of “Yours Truly, 2095”, to the twinkling rounds of “The Ohio Winter Conventioners”, to the krautrock instrumental “Rules of Disengagement”. And the propulsive, gorgeous “Resignation Studies” is the kind of song that justifies an album — hell, a career — all on its lonesome.
But You’ve Always Been the Caretaker isn’t anything as gauche or awkwardly plastered together as a concept album, but there’s a cohesiveness to its themes and emotions; this is a record about the future and our hopes and fears for it, about the past and the way we never quite want to leave it. Ending the record on the gently seething ambience of “How and Why Our Dads Lost the War” after the one-two punch of “Resignation Studies” and the soaring “Final Chapter Meeting” is a bold move, but it’s a fitting one. Perversely enough for 2010, the Silent League have made not just a collection of great songs, but an actual album — one even better than the sum of its parts. Witty, sonically striking, and emotionally affecting in equal parts, the Silent League have turned into the great band they always threatened to be.