Like so many concept records before it, this proves itself really just another record, albeit one populated by sweet, and refreshingly lean, pop tunes.
The 1900s have slimmed down since their 2007 album Cold & Kind. They've lost two founding members and, in the three years since that record honed their heavily orchestrated sound into a humbler, more streamlined brand of pop music. Their indelible hooks remain -- remember "When I Say Go"? -- but the landscape around them has a much narrower scope and a little more space for the players to work in.
The wrench in the idea of concision on Return of the Century, though, is that the band claims it as a concept record about a post-Rapture underground world. By and large, concept records come off as bigger than their parts, focused on the large ideas, the building of a whole through connected parts. That idea, on paper, certainly goes against the idea of paring things down for the 1900s. Listening to the record, however, it's clear that -- like so many concept records before it -- this record shows that it's really just a record. Themes may run through it, but rather than a album-long narrative, we get ten understated and mostly effective pop songs.
With their leaner approach, the band is at its best when it amps up the playful energy. "Amulet" bounces along on acoustic guitar and piano riffs, but it’s the swell of backing vocals that pushes it forward behind Edward Anderson's hushed singing. "Lay a Ghost" sets a spare beat so Caroline Donovan's honeyed voice can stretch out, but the song succeeds in the small details -- the echoing bleat of a guitar in the distance, a quite riff rising and falling. It's languid pace also leads nicely into the more driving, but no less space, "Kidnap Runaway".
In its most infectious moments, Return of the Century shows the 1900s reborn as a power-pop band. Songs burst forth and, though they don't employ the crunch of heavy power chords, there's a propulsion to the best songs here that is energizing. The album falls off a bit, though, when this subtler formula goes for softer sounds. The mid-tempo "Lion's Fur" with its ringing guitars and echoed vocals up in the mix, sounds a little too polished, the slight edge of the other songs sanded down to a smooth thump. The beat feels a little too simple, the flourishes underdone, and in the end it feels like an overlong transition between stronger songs. Similarly, the dreamy, not-quite-moody "Babies" never quite comes together. The vocals are high up in the mix, and they overpower the lightness of the music. In these moments, where other songs whittle away the orchestral layers we used to hear from these guys, here it feels like the foundation gets pulled and only the layers remain, floating around on their own.
Still, their new approach makes for a brisk, satisfying pop record. Good luck figuring out the post-Rapture story they seem to be trying to tell us on Return of the Century. Really, though, to bog yourself down in that task, is to miss the clear pleasure of these hook-filled songs. It's not a simple pleasure, these guys will quietly make you work to figure out the intricacies of, say, the angular chug of "Bmore", but if you set aside the overall effect, and bed down in this album on a moment-to-moment basis, there's plenty of pop music to get lodged in your head on this record.