It's a harrowing experience to read back through reviews of past Clem Snide albums. The band is a big open target, fawned over by some, batted about mercilessly by others in what often amounts to little more than character assassination. Few reviews are indifferent and the band tends to make people react strongly (one friend claimed to be so put off by front man Eef Barzelay's stage presence that he felt a pain in his lower back); it's an indication that, good or bad, at least they're doing something. Some of the animosity towards them may be a backlash against eager press and critics who targeted the band from the beginning for quick stardom. While it seems silly to judge the band for press that they have no control over, it seems equally odd that they were ever marked for stardom in the first place. Whatever appeal they would have for a larger audience always seemed to be balanced by enough idiosyncrasies to scare most people off.
Soft Spot doesn't figure to make things any easier on Clem Snide with either their heated nay-sayers or fans hoping for more of the same, the same being the smart, country-twinged, hipster indie-rock of their first three full-lengths, each of which kept getting better than the one that came before. On the new album, they tear down their sneering, outer walls and expose themselves as big softies with warm, gentle hearts who may or may not be looking to give the world a big hug. The change shouldn't really be all that surprising, but at first it really is. I think that most people who were paying attention knew all along that the guys had big hearts, it was just easier to take it with a cool detachment when those hearts were revealed in relation to Nick Drake tapes or Elvis' long lost twin. Soft Spot comes head on, toning down or altogether dropping many of their past devices: pop culture references that could either foster a common point of reference or leave songs feeling quickly dated; wordplay that could engage you or leave you out in the cold. The most clever that they get on Soft Spot, which is to say not really all that clever, is turning "Al Green" into "all green".
At first, they seem to have overshot the mark, stripping back so much that they sound like they've gone soft. Soft Spot is instantly more accessible where their previous albums wanted you to come to them on their own terms. Barzelay's voice even comes off with considerably less abrasion than in the past. It's tough to get past because the walls that they once so clearly constructed made the rewards all the sweeter once you got in; it was a big part of their appeal. The warmth and shielded optimism in some of their older songs were made richer by being contrasted against Barzelay's wit and drollness. Here, at first, the wit seems to be largely gone, with too much surface material and not as much hiding in the details. Love is the overriding theme. Simple, plain-stated love. Love that leads to devotion and settling down and kids and mortgage. A friend described it as "the sound of a band giving up".
When he said it, I think I pretty much agreed, but now I'm pretty sure he was wrong. On past albums, the details and clever bits were obvious; they called attention to themselves. By backing off what they know, Clem Snide has started the process of shedding their skin. What some might see as a sell out might be the most punk rock thing that they could have done. Instead of walling up even more, which would have been the expected move, this collection of songs drops its defenses and hangs itself out there entirely. The simple truth with Soft Spot is that it gets better, more revealing, with each listen.
After multiple spins, Barzelay offering to swallow swords for love sounds braver each time. After hearing him declare that, "When there's love there's action" a few times, what starts off sounding like a stab at an obligatory up-beat song comes off sounding more like a declaration of principles. "Happy Birthday" is all gushy, sentimental confessions ("Never have I been made to feel less heavy / Never have I been less cynical") and warm wishes, ("After your heart is broken / I hope you get a second chance") complete with sleigh bells, that opens the window a little on the album. Gleeful, goofy horns and a tossed-off Don Henley reference pick up the mood and make it almost seem like old times again. At the same time, the lasting feeling is of the band breaking free.
More than past albums, Soft Spot benefits from a more cohesive, if somewhat slicker, band sound. Clem Snide, anchored by the excellent Eric Paull on drums, has evolved into a snappy little unit, though at times it's easy to miss the more nervous, ragtag sound of their previous work. About the third time through the disc, though, amid all the syrupy declarations of love, an uneasy feeling began creeping up on me. Just as I started getting teary from all their little love ways, I started wondering if it was all a joke; love songs meant to disarm only so you can be snickered at right when you're all set to admit that, "Yeah, so what, the songs get to me." I somehow really doubt that that was their intention but it's comforting in a way to know that the Snide is still capable of making me feel a little uneasy even when they're trying to wear their hearts right on their sleeves. So what if it was just my dumb insecurities getting in the way of a good thing? That's love, sometimes, too. Right?