Through two albums, Canadian rock outfit Plants and Animals have offered us heavily orchestrated, maximalist rock-pop. Parc Avenue, their breakthrough album, was an impressive and lively set of dramatic rock songs that recalled the dust of Neil Young and the resonant, shifting compositions of Arcade Fire’s first record. Plants and Animals’ sophomore effort, La La Land, was just as layered but sounded leaner, more straightforward, and though the songs still worked, the record sounded stuck, like it was still hidden in the shadow of its predecessor.
The End of That shakes that feeling off nicely, mostly by trying a whole new tack. Rather than utilizing the studio writing and layering the band usually relies on for its creative energy, here the band wrote all the material ahead of time and knocked out the record as quickly as they could, wrapping up recording in two weeks time. This on-the-fly approach makes for songs that are far more immediate — and lively — than the moody rock tunes on La La Land. There are plenty of different textures as tones shift and change, and epic rock songs still reel us in with thick hooks and bracing power. The album recaptures the nearly childlike zeal of the band’s debut, and the sense of the band discovering new sounds as they record these songs transfers to the listener on most every track.
All this immediacy doesn’t make the band rush a thing on this record. Opener “Before” is a dusty acoustic number, a song spacious enough to stretch out into some expansive desert. It’s an intimate introduction to a record that feels more confessional than its predecessors. The sounds are big, but the feelings they get at (the isolation) is deeply personal. The lean country-rocker “The End of That” feels at first like tossed off memories of youth. “I tried cocaine”, singer Warren C. Spicer says, “just to see what it could do”. The song quickly shifts its tone though into something more grown up, delving into ideas of leaving that kind of foolish youth behind. That laid back feel turns weary as Spicer seems to look to move toward something closer to, well, adulthood.
The rest of the record seems to concern itself with what exactly that adulthood is. The bluesy “Crisis!” places Spicer in that awkward time in early adulthood where, according to him, “Well holy matrimony, everybody’s getting married or breaking up”. Spicer himself seems to be stuck between these two poles, between a “crisis and a pretty good time”. If that song finds him trying to find this place, while everyone around him is defined by a relationship (new or ending), “2010” finds him leaving behind a fresh wound. “Goodbye to the tears of last year”, he bays on this towering rock tune, one of the band’s most unabashed bursts of noise.
The End of That may, in title and themes, talk much about what’s been left behind, but it’s more about transition than anything. The album mines the moment where we age and lose relationships — the time when we lose friends and we lose friends to relationships — and wonders what we’re to make of our next move. The overcast, excellent closer “Runaways”, with all its grinding guitars and pounding drums — not to mention a killer chorus — feels wholly triumphant. But listen to how Spicer insists “We’re living the dream” over and over again. His voice is just barely cracking at the edges, shadowed by uncertainty.
The record smartly offers little in the way of answers, instead drawing us into its strange limbo. The songs themselves are as big as anything on Parc Avenue and as affecting in their heft, but they also feel cut free, loose, and alive rather than controlled or overworked. All that freedom and joyful noise clashes up against reality, one which invites a next move, even requires it, but gives us no hint at what it might be. “We’re almost there, but so is the end”, Spicer keens, hope and worry balanced equally on the scales, a perfectly precarious place for this record to end. “That” has ended, yes, but Plants and Animals are still figuring out what this is, and on this record, it’s a fruitful search.