British Sea Power have finally let their smarts get the better of them.
Much was made of the bombast and grandiosity of British Sea Power's last traditional release, Do You Like Rock Music? The young indie guitar band, guitar in every sense of the word, invigorated their moody historical aesthetic with an unreflective maturity and made one of most satisfying rock albums of the decade, full of epic overstatement and more-is-more sonic layering. It sounds contrarian, but Do You Like Rock Music? worked so well because it was positively dumber than anything British Sea Power had done before.
Looking back on the shameless, noisy fun of that album, it's hard to fight a sense of sinking disappointment with their newest, Valhalla Dancehall. Gone is the consistency, the careful pacing. Gone are the explosive climaxes, the paltry but functional interludes. Instead, we get a sometimes aggressive, sometimes spineless pop set that reaches back to the playful arrangements and catchy songwriting of Open Season but fails to recapture the carefree air of tracks like "Victorian Ice" and "How Will I Ever Find My Way Home?" What's left is a faltering, diverse collection of songs that sound better on paper than they do on the record.
"Living Is So Easy", the lead single, is nearly a synth number with its swift, mechanical rhythms and chattering electronic noises. Frontman Yan's voice, which in other songs lilts charmingly out of key, sounds simply flat and uninspired against the whirring, obligatory harmonies. The song is, we are to take it, about the superficiality of modern first world life and those ever-criticized ills-for-our-age, consumerism, self-medication, and spiritual emptiness. "Living is so easy / Shopping is so easy / Dying is so easy / All of it is easy," he sings. A good dose of fun would help such moralizing go down much easier. Otherwise, one might reasonably expect a bit more depth from a song that apparently takes lack of depth as a damning flaw.
As the band meanders over the musical map, "Cleaning Out the Rooms" and "Once More Now" run aground in very different territory. Both songs clock in at more than seven minutes, building slowly and quietly to slow and quiet climaxes. Despite the wind-swept sincerity with which "Once More Now" mounts towards its picturesque denouement, there is no appreciable shift in tone and so the eruption of silence that ought to create a dramatic release really comes as no surprise at all. "Cleaning Out the Rooms" creates a similarly nuanced atmosphere which serves a similarly unremarkable end. The elaborate, fine-tuned arrangements on these tracks, and of Valhalla Dancehall as a whole, display a new level of richness for the band, but what might be a bold step forward is instead a confused gamble in all directions.
Lack of focus also spoils the fuzzed-out "Mongk II", the chronically earnest "Georgie Ray" and the whispery crooner, "Baby". Strong melodies and unconventional riffs are offset by weepy soundscapes and tedious transitions; the band's strengths -- multi-textured arrangements, custom-fit song structures -- are notably absent, misapplied, or betrayed by meaningless sophistication. The album is marked by a sense of unruly potential.
British Sea Power have always been hailed as an intelligent band, from the self-conscious low-fidelity of their first album to the thoughtful orchestrations of the soundtrack they recorded in 2009 for the 1934 film Man of Aran. After the irresistible, overblown and quite possibly inadvertent brilliance of Do You Like Rock Music?, Valhalla Dancehall feels like a predictable and not entirely satisfying return to form. British Sea Power may be getting too smart for their own good.