Even though Why Are You Okay features some of Band of Horses' best work in a long time, it's still only slightly above average at best.
There’s a reason why Band of Horses’ music works so well for television and film soundtracks. Ben Bridwell’s boyish vocals, when accompanied by strummed or arpeggiated guitar, make for some of the quaintest and most localized folk-rock in the indie scene, and their lyrical content almost never leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth. The band has generally stuck to this simple yet effective formula for most of their career, and to varying amounts of success. They have been hailed as one of the better indie acts by fans and one of the most derivative by hard-nosed critics, but their latest album, Why Are You OK, places them squarely in the middle of these two camps.
Once more, simple guitar and drums accompany Bridwell, and -- like the last pair of Band of Horses’ albums -- he’s trending more towards the pop side of things, which isn’t a bad idea. The bare lyrics, simple chord progressions, and easy 4/4 time signature of most of their music are characteristic of popular music as a whole, and the incorporation of sweet guitar effects and layered piano add dynamism to what otherwise would-be, basic songs. “Whatever, Wherever”, the album’s lead single, is drenched in harmonious instrumentation, and the lush guitar tones that spice up the melody make the track feel like a soft wave of noise brushing past you. The closer, “Even Still”, is a perfect end to this album for the sole reason that the melancholic piano matches the slow vocal delivery, and serves as the auditory equivalent to the band floating out into the sea. Even the opener, “Dull Times/The Moon”, with its unenergetic first half, at least sounds interesting and multi-faceted because of the instrumental shift from acoustic to electric guitar and an immediate change in tempo. Not since their first album has Band of Horses sounded so determined to making simple music that’s also active and fluid in the process.
The other side of the coin, though, is that the instrumental minimalism of Why Are You OK puts an enormous focus on Bridwell’s lyrics, and as usual he misses the mark a handful of times. “In A Drawer” showcases Ben’s inability to make poignant metaphors, as he compares finding love to finding his missing sock, while a song called “Country Teens” contains the following line: “Sorry you passed out on the lawn”. Maybe he was going for a tongue-in-cheek, adolescent comedy—which would match his youthful vocals—and while he’s not nearly as cringe-worthy as an act like Blink-182, he does himself no favors with song ideas such as these.
Bridwell also stuffs his songs full of lyrics that—while not bad—are inconsequential at best. Phrases like “You stay here till the ghost is clear”, “I love you so much I’m going to throw up”, and “As far as we’ve come, we’ve still further to go” are not terrible per se, yet they lack the personality and character necessary to drive them home. Listening to them in the context of the song is fine; it’s when one tries to analyze them that they eventually hit an emotional brick wall.
The few moments where Band of Horses experiments with their sound also leads to mixed results, except this time around they deserve some credit for pushing the boundaries of their music, even if only a little bit. Besides the aforementioned “Whatever, Wherever”, “Throw My Mess” stands out for its heavy country sound, packed with fiddle and teeming with country twang that adds plenty of personality. Even the comically strange lyrics on “Casual Party” are excusable simply because Band of Horses truly embraces the pop sensibilities that they’ve been flirting with as of late, and the result is a decent bit of fun, boyishly charming indie rock. In fact, the only truly useless bit of experimentation on the whole album is the interlude “Hold On Gimme A Second”, in which the band aimlessly wanders between musical passages before eventually ending up at the next song.
Overall, though, Band of Horses should be proud of Why Are You OK. It’s easily one of their better albums of the last six years, and it reminds fans and critics alike why Band of Horses are here to stay. They may not be groundbreaking, sophisticated, or poetic in any sense of the word, but what they lack in complexity and nuance they make up for in solid, simple tracks that are as harmless as they are amiable. Sometimes, that’s all it takes.