Where do you go after you make an album that might be the clearest possible distillation of your band’s artistic mission statement? In 2010, Jukebox the Ghost released the near-sublime Everything Under the Sun, an insanely fun (no period needed) record that had co-frontmen Ben Thornewill (vocals, piano) and Tommy Siegel (vocals, guitar) firing on all cylinders. Their debut, Let Live and Let Ghosts, made it clear they were a good band capable of writing good songs; Everything Under the Sun made the case that Jukebox was a great band capable of writing great songs.
But rather than sit on their laurels, Thornewill, Siegel, and drummer Jesse Kristin have moved irrevocably forward on Safe Travels, their latest album, with mixed success. In many ways the songs here represent a logical progression to their discography: their melodies and song structures continue to become more sophisticated (and, sometimes, prone to inaccessibility), and the production work is more pristine and lush than ever. The result is that much of what’s here feels simultaneously a bit more bloated and a bit more slight than the band’s previous output.
Case in point: the duo of “Devils on Our Side” and “All for Love”, two tracks that are really more like one song in two acts. “Devils” is the kind of song Jukebox the Ghost would have knocked out of the park in the past: just the honey-voiced Thornewill singing gorgeously with sparse piano accompaniment. Somehow, though, this feels more like a ground-rule double than a home run, nice and pretty but not life-changing, in the vein of an inoffensive British group like Keane or Aqualung. The skeleton is still there, but the muscle, so to speak, has been pulled away.
And that’s a problem that’s sadly endemic to Safe Travels, albeit in an understated way. Everything sounds a just little too generic, or a little too uninspired, as if the band is constantly on the precipice of something really spectacular. For most of the album they’re content to filter their trademark buoyancy through a soggy early ’00s indie sound, complete with synth strings and anthemic Coldplay-style background vocals. Thornewill’s piano is stuck in lockstep precision on songs like “Adulthood”, when you wish he’d let it play a little more fast and loose. The band regains its mojo in a big way over the last quarter of the album — Siegel’s unexpected acoustic gem “Man in the Moon”, the vintage Folds-ian stomp of “Everybody Knows”, and the tongue-in-cheek gospel of “The Spiritual” are all excellent tracks — but by the time you get there, it may be too late.
To be fair, these complaints may be entirely a product of expectation, and of this album’s context in the band’s history. Having already proved they’re capable of being a great band, it can be frustrating to hear them be merely good. And there’s no denying that the group’s characteristic verve is alive and well. An unrelenting energy pours out of every song here. Safe Travels is the sound of Jukebox the Ghost gearing up for the next phase of their career, the one where they swing for the fences. It’s natural they’d experience some growing pains along the way.