How many times can you challenge your audience to join you at the top of the room before these big moves become big tropes?
Scotland's We Were Promised Jetpacks never shied from making big room music. Getting their start opening for countrymen Frightened Rabbit, the band reared itself on the grey capitulations and resolutions that lay strewn across landscapes of the heart. Unlike their colleagues in Frightened Rabbit, We Were Promised Jetpacks sought not the most crushing turn of phrase with which to stab their listener's innards but obliterating arrangement and dynamic shifts. The first Jetpacks' single was the ironically titled shout-along "Quiet Little Voices", with guitars and backing vocals emerging in the chorus with storm surge intentions. If Frightened Rabbit was a punch in the gut, this was a cross to the jaw. We Were Promised Jetpacks rely on these moments. The final movement of "It's Thunder and It's Lightening", a more apt title, explodes with snare hits as the first track on their debut album, 2009's These Four Walls.
At their best they held the potential to make you shout along with them as you slammed the dashboard of your car or some other inanimate object, hoping it was built to sustain the assault from band and listener. It was, after all, thunder, and it was lightening. However, aiming for maximum impact can be a tricky business. How much emotional range will your listeners allow? How many times can you challenge your audience to join you at the top of the room before these big moves become big tropes?
The band returns with its third LP, Unraveling, after a mediocre second record and a live album that failed to capture the humanity and fury of their debut. The stakes emerge as a bit more modest on Unraveling. The very title of debut single, "Safety in Numbers" suggests as much. Perhaps there is freedom in the crowd or at least relief in seeking something beyond the concussing dynamic movements of the band's early work. This is, of course, not to say that We Were Promised Jetpacks has mellowed entirely. Even "Safety in Numbers" hits the high-fret board and pounding tom drums in its final moments. A subtle change slides the band's work back from obsession with the brink of things toward something more sustainable, at times, even darkly elegant. Vocalist Adam Johnson confesses on "Peace Sign", "I've been fucking up the punchlines" as if to say, the delivery of the last moment is less important than the gestalt of the moment itself. The ripping "A Part of It" features Johnson admitting, "I never swear to keeping a promise I can't deliver." It is timeless message aimed at a lover, but in the echoing cymbals of the song's final moments it is impossible not to consider it a contract with the listener, an only mildly obfuscated one: Let us be more reasonable, even, perhaps, unsure.
In fine and threatening form on "Night Terror", the arrangement lifts and breathes darkness when Johnson brogues, "I'm in limbo" as the band embraces its own interstitial location. Under a newly self-possessed aegis, the songs unfold methodically, more interested in process than in final outcomes. It is a certain uncertainty. Even on the heavy-handed "Moral Compass", Johnson insists, "I know right from wrong" and also encourages, "surprise yourself." The expansive and post-rock indebted middle section of the next track, "Peace of Mind" represents a brand of self-surprise: the restraint, the distance, the final give-in to the impulses you knew were there all along, better for the temporary denial of themselves. "Peace of Mind" arrives at some of the same breathless pathos the band has always sought, but this time it feels earned, six and a half minutes of attack and curtailment at once.
Unraveling may not be the best We Were Promised Jetpacks record, which still goes to These Four Walls, but it is the album that demarcates a clear if ultimately less certain direction. Still technically accomplished and sophisticated, the band aims at territory to be mutually explored, a project less imperial and intentionally face melting than their previous work. It is this absence that marks and colors Unraveling. We crave these spaces in between or what choice do we have? We can't feel it all always.