A sweet mess made out of heaven and hell, equal parts bitter and sweet, beautiful and stoned.
A funny thing happened to Margot and the Nuclear So and So's on their way to major label acceptance. Their story is common enough for a band of their stature: indie, folk-tinged band gets noticed, major label signing from Epic Records follows, band isn't happy with major label influence and return to self-releasing subsequent albums through their own label. Margot then, it seems, proceed to do whatever the hell they want to exorcise the bad taste of major label out of their mouths. Richard Edwards (the remaining center of MATNSASs), isn't trendy and he isn't one to cave into demands for an appealing, radio-friendly sound; 2010's left-turn into guitar rock, Buzzard, is proof of that. Thankfully, now, Edwards has settled down and tempered some of the previous musings that turned some listeners away from an otherwise accessible band. Slingshot to Heaven, the band's latest, is quieter, more precise, and shows off strength musically and melodically, but it's taken down by some lower lyrical standards that Edwards lets slip through.
There are songs of untempered folk promise and quiet beauty that Margot has carefully pined over. "Hello San Francisco", the album's low-key opener begins earnestly with Edwards clearing his throat and trading a yelp for a sweet, submissive ode to the hazy, pot smoke air of a California landscape. "Flying Saucer Blues" pulls blood from the same vein; an echo-laden refrain with an unhurried acoustic strum and harmony vocals culled from long nights spent missing someone, or some nameless mirage. And "Swallowin' Light Beams", the song whose lyrics give the LP its title, outshines Sky Blue Sky-era Wilco, and does it all without the perverted guitar lines of Nels Cline.
A good three-fourths of Slingshot keeps to these templates, ground that Edwards makes the most of and tracks that highlight his inherent ability to keep a simple melody rolling along through an otherwise sparse album of comedown songs for hangover-induced mornings and sunken-eyed sunrises. When other instruments do show up—harmonica, simple snare beats, double-picked guitar lines—they are always in the service of the Edwards's winsome melodies. The regions between verse and chorus contain light years and dust particles from space; remnants of the flying saucers Edwards calls out on the LP cover and in song. Or, more appropriately, they sound like fragments of Edwards's appreciation for all things drug-related; a lyrical crux that he falls to song after song.
Drugs and their presence are as indelible to Slingshot as Edwards's pacified vocals. No surprise here; Margot's song titles give their subjects away easily (e.g., "Children's Crusade on Acid", "Jen Is Bringin' the Drugs", "Prozac Rock"). But it's irksome when Edwards's relies on drugspeak and non-sequiturs to fill gaps in the verses, especially when we know that Edwards can pen a lyrical gut punch when he needs to. Case in point, on "Bleary-eye-d Blue", the menace behind a line like, "If everything's fine / Please stop screaming so loud" is muted behind a stoned delivery. The drugs, it seems, do work, but they work better when their effects are felt in the music and not printed on the page. But song after song, from "Hello, San Francisco" to "Los Angeles", Edwards's crutch is getting high, sketching the results, and hoping they relate somehow. Who knows what it means to get "high as a cabbage head" or feel the effects of the druggy stupor in "I Can’t Sleep My Eyes Are Flat". And when those lines fail, Edwards utilizes the most banal of rock lyric tropes: repetition and sexy women ("Gettin' Fat", "Long Legged Blonde Memphis"). Tossing out lines like "I'll kill you" after "Hang the stars from the ceiling / Turn the moon into powder" ("Wedding Song") isn't provocative or indicative of a larger mantra, it's just whimsical and lazy; a fill-in where more empty space would suit.
Lyrically, Edwards is smarter than he comes across on Slingshot to Heaven. True, his musical freedom to write and record in his own studio, on his own terms, have lead him to rediscover vital elements that once helped Margot rise above the indie folk/rock pack. But, to paraphrase a ridiculously lengthy Manchester Orchestra album title, genius often needs an editor. Having a major label editor is what made Not Animal more cohesive and worthwhile than the band's preferred statement Animal. Slingshot to Heaven hits its highs in all the right ways (pun intended), and in many ways, it's the Margot LP that most of us have waited for for some time. It stumbles on redundancy, but always falls gracefully, in perfect time with Edwards careening musical muses; it's a sweet mess made out of heaven and hell, equal parts bitter and sweet, beautiful and stoned.