There’s one thing you can say about Mirage Rock, Band of Horses’ fourth album, that you can not say about any of the others: It’s better than the last one.
After a great debut and a very good follow-up, Infinite Arms (2010) found the band mellowing out and blanding out, even though it became their best-selling album to date. Mirage Rock offers little Ben Bridwell and company have not done before, but at least it shakes off the complacency or pandering to radio that brought down its predecessor. Bridwell has claimed that Mirage Rock is a “looser” album, and he’s right.
Part of this renewed sense of energy may be a result of the producer. After three albums helmed by Americana go-to guy Phil Ek, Band of Horses have tabbed English producer Glyn Johns for Mirage Rock. Johns is famous for having helped define the “classic rock” sound of the 1960s and ’70s, working with the Who, the Eagles, and Faces. As usual, Johns lends the album a clean, clear, no-frills sound that is vacuum-tight and uncluttered. It suits Band of Horses pretty well, though the move is hardly a bold or risky one.
Mirage Rock does indeed rock out more and more often than any Band of Horses album since the debut. Johns’ influence is clear from the first track, “Knock Knock”. Starting and stopping and driven by power chords, it rattles along satisfyingly like the Who, if the Who were a contemporary modern rock band. “Feud” does some no-nonsense thrashing as Bridwell sing-speaks through in his trademark high-pitched voice. The atmosphere is heavy yet somehow calming and effortless, too, an alchemy that made early tracks like “The Funeral” special. Still, “Feud” is not as strong melodically or structurally. It comes across as a perfectly fine albeit lesser version of an earlier, more exceptional Band of Horses track. Actually, you could say that about most of the album.
A certain irony is at work with Mirage Rock as well. When Band of Horses released said debut in 2006, knee-jerk comparisons with My Morning Jacket were made. The bands shared hirsute appearances and a sparkling, Southern Gothic take on classic Americana, but the comparisons were lazy nonetheless. Now, though, a large part of Mirage Rock actually sounds like My Morning Jacket in various stages. Witness the roadhouse boogie of “Electric Music” or the dreamy, hypnotic harmonies of “Shut-In Tourist”. Album closer “Heartbreak on the 101” lays on the schmaltzy strings, and MMJ have been there, too.
Who knows whether Band of Horses asked Johns to make midtempo country croon-alongs “Slow Cruel Hands of Time” and “Long Vows” sound like the Eagles, but they do. No problem, then, if you like honeyed harmonies and no worries. But is this what the “new Americana” has come to? Nothing on Mirage Rock demands repeated playing, but a couple tracks come close. “A Little Biblical” is a sharp, easy bit of indie pop that sounds like Teenage Fanclub. “Everything’s Gonna Be Undone”, written and sung by guitarist Tyler Ramsey, is a good-natured folk song, even if it does drift into an all-too-familiar chord combination. Think the Lemonheads’ “Into Your Arms”.
One song you won’t want to play again, ever, is “Dumpster World”. Starting off as a perfectly pleasant, jazzy shuffle, the song shifts awkwardly to a clunky, embarrassing heavy metal chorus. “Happy living in a dumpster world”, sings Bridwell, as his bandmates yell “Let out the wolves!” and the like. The choice of metaphor makes for some of the most unintentionally funny social commentary you will hear on a rock’n’roll record.
“Dumpster World” simply pinpoints an issue that is problematic throughout Mirage Rock, though. Bridwell’s small-town observations have previously had a shallow yet quaint quality to them, but Mirage Rock goes far too heavy on the clichés. You could string some of them into a sentence, like magnetic poetry: One way or another, it’s time to move back home and face the music, not get caught out in the rain, because better things come to those who wait. When he is not dishing out such platitudes, Bridwell offers confessions like, “Guess what / Lost my job / It’s just my luck”. Bummer, dude.
At least Mirage Rock has more to say musically than Infinite Arms did. The new album is the first one that carries over Band of Horses’ entire lineup, unchanged, from the last. Despite that, or maybe in part because of it, they still just can’t put it all together like those first couple albums did.