In this election year, it’s the Citizens who are campaigning against all the incumbents — the whole mess of musical influences the group draws from. Their platform comes nicely packaged for the digital voters on a compact disc complete with publicity photos. Are We There Yet? begs you not to take soundbites, but to look at the full argument.
On only their first album, the Citizens try to make a complete statement over the course of the disc’s 48 minutes. They draw on a variety of musical influences — everything from typical indie rock to Aerosmith to showtunes to Britpop — but maintain a singular sound. While the band’s approach displays an artistic confidence, many of the song’s narrators reveal personal uncertainty. These concerns take shape in religious, sexual, and ethical questions, and usually form more around a steady questioning than a certain resolution or fearful resistance.
“Tell Me Something I Don’t Know” sums up these feelings:
“Mixin’ up the X and Y, glimmer in your father’s eye
They’re doing it all over town.
Check the yellow pages under world in distress. There’s no one to help with the mess.
Some folks believe in a world they can’t see
Won’t somebody show it to me?
These narrators have taken a cynical stance in the world, but there’s an essential hopefulness that creeps out. While they won’t accept religion, they’ll ask for spirituality. While they doubt their decisions (in “You Might Be Right”), they’ll believe in the outcomes of those choices.
Despite its strong focus and development, the album still has its weak moments. “Mussolini’s First Crush” alternates between rambly spoken-word and sung-in-grunge sections, with each delivery type competing to be the most annoying. The song’s lyrics nod at depth, but more often settle for trite rhyming: “I’m not convinced of your conviction / Give me more than just a genuflection / I’m waiting on your undivided attention.” Even the surprise musical and lyrical endings (which I won’t spoil) aren’t enough to redeem this track.
Just two songs later we’re given “Deck Full of Jokers”, which was apparently made by the title cards. The Citizens rely on childish lines (“Oh, when the Saints / Come / On your face”) and minimal music and the track never gets going. Oddly, they’ve sequenced the song as the last one on “Part One” of the album. Had I actually gotten Are We There Yet? on vinyl, I don’t think I’d have flipped the record for “Part Two”, considering the stumbles of two of the front side’s final three tracks.
Fortunately, I did stick with the CD, as the second half opens strongly with “In B for Backward”. The track has a cabaret style, but it also points most directly to the Britpop that’s essential to the Citizens’ sound. On this number, and in a few other places, the group sounds a little like Clearlake, just enough so to be a compliment, but not so much as to be redundant.
Not wanting to lose their base, the Citizens return stateside with the ’80s rock ballad “King Kong”. Considering that it’s a monkey-love-song dipping into a much-maligned genre, the track works surprisingly well. Bryan Lesseraux completely makes up for his earlier songwriting miscues with a beautiful arrangement and lyric here. The track hits hard on its own, but it also fits into the larger concerns of the album.
The disc closes with its title track, asking the question “Are we there yet?” on multiple levels even as the Citizens answer it. That question, of course, can only be asked if you aren’t, in fact, at your destination. Lesseraux sings, “Is this Portugal? We aimed for Spain / Close in every way, but still wrong”. The narrator knows he hasn’t arrived, but he’s still searching, knowing that “in the end, we arrive… somewhere”. It’s an album about uncertainy, delivered with confidence.
In the end, the Citizens are worthy candidates, and I’d probably throw my vote their way in the poll. After a few mid-campaign stumbles, they’ve even motivated me enough to get to the polls.