If Peter Buck produces your records, and for your new one you’ve added to your lineup Camper Van Beethoven‘s founding bassist; and you not only pick up echoes of fellow Pacific Northwesterners the Posies but also echo their song titling (Every Kind of/A Colossal Waste of); and your principal songwriters are/were also in the Decemberists and Guided By Voices; then your band of middle-aged pop-rockers is doing almost everything exactly right. And that’s Eyelids.
To be clear, the music this Portland, Oregon-based band makes isn’t as easy to make as their facility with it suggests. No doubt sheer experience is at work here, the accumulated decades of immersion and osmosis. Eyelids channel Badfinger and Big Star, 1980s art-jangle like Let’s Active and, unsurprisingly, vintage R.E.M. You can also hear plenty of 1990s-toned indie guitar pop, from Teenage Fanclub to Velvet Crush and especially Tommy Keene (R.I.P.), and even a little grunge corruption when something Smashing Pumpkins-like comes through on “Runaway, Yeah”.
There are a few things to admire about that particular song. One is that Eyelids are canny enough to call it “Runaway, Yeah” instead of plain “Runaway”, because the almost impossibly addictive refrain absolutely depends on the “yeah, yeah” that follows “I wanna run away.” Nothing would seem simpler than an old-fashioned “yeah, yeah”, but hooking it so perfectly onto that spine-aligning I-V-IV chord progression isn’t simple at all. You have to start building to it virtually from the song’s first notes, and not even the best practitioners manage it very often. (It helps that the aforementioned Camper Van Beethoven bassist, Victor Krummenacher, turns in a tasty track.) Eyelids should get a year’s supply of free beer just for sticking this single landing.
There is plenty more than “Runaway, Yeah” to like on A Colossal Waste of Light. It’s got lots of hummable bits, hooky lines, and just-right chord changes, and you can put it on while you’re cooking, cleaning, driving, or drinking the beer you bought the band: almost any quotidian activity you can think of will improve if it’s done to a soundtrack like this album. There isn’t a single dud among the 13 songs. They’re expertly played and attractively produced by Buck. Some of them partake of a dreaminess, yearning, and even an occasional touch of sadness that complicate the album’s generally sanguine musical disposition.
You don’t choose a title like A Colossal Waste of Light if you are always feeling happy and assured. Make the effort to listen past the amiable melodiousness and punchy sound, and Eyelids’ songwriting and singing duo of John Moen and Chris Slusarenko can be heard taking turns singing about their diffidence and loneliness, the traps and messes they’ve gotten stuck in, and whether a long-dead relationship would have worked out if only they’d found “a better door”—maybe not the “Definite Door” the Posies had in mind in 1994, but in this musical context the invocation is there whether or not it’s intentional.
If there’s one complaint about this enjoyable album, you have to make that listening effort. The lyrics are by no means unintelligible; this isn’t Michael Stipe stuff, despite Moen’s perfect Stipe impression with “I’m a disengager / I’m a heavy feather.” Yet, given Moen and Slusarenko’s naturally modest voices—Moen’s somewhere in Mitch Easter territory, Slusarenko’s more breathy/wispy—their frequently restrained positioning in the mixes, and their tendencies toward an indie enunciative affect that is de rigueur in this genre, you become aware of having to fine-tune your ears to get a clear signal. There’s nothing wrong with that—too much clarity in art should always be regarded with skepticism—but when a band writes singalong tunes that can’t quite be sung along to, they’re holding themselves a few steps back from the mainstream, where music as good and as tuneful as this really deserves to be heard.
A favorite mantra of R.E.M.’s manager, Jefferson Holt, was “A little bit of uh-huh, a whole lot of oh-yeah.” As Buck once avowed, from the start, R.E.M. wanted to be a big rock band, not artsy obscurantists. The day in 1987 when Michael Stipe sang, with almost startling directness and clarity, “This one goes out to the one I love,” he formally announced R.E.M.’s classic-rock priorities, and the band’s subsequent embrace of more and more oh-yeah was why they became platinum-selling world-beaters in the early 1990s. If Eyelids were aiming at that same level of mass appeal, they could build to and belt out lines like run away, yeah, yeah, more often. It’s their indie right, or maybe even their indie art, not to.
Whether this approach to writing lyrics and recording vocals—and for that matter, to making pop music—bothers you will probably depend on what you want from the overall listening experience. If you want high-strung emotionality, you will almost certainly not find it in A Colossal Waste of Light. There’s pensive regret over lost opportunity and love but little outright keening or straining in the face of heartbreak and failure. There is no raging against machines and nothing audibly political, as there so often was with Stipe—one of his era’s sharpest and most underappreciated lyrical polemicists—and no reaching for Stipe’s “new dimension of paracultural reflectiveness”, as the great musician/music writer Scott Miller called Stipe’s early abstruse, physically incomprehensible incantations. Eyelids don’t mumble or moan or imprecate, and they don’t submerge meaning in anything we would generally call “poetry”. The pain and longing Moen and Slusarenko express is simply but aptly put, mildly and unassumingly voiced, and embedded in comfortable musical settings.
With repeated listens to those settings, A Colossal Waste of Light really does come to sound more and more like vintage R.E.M., hence the unavoidable and unfair comparisons to Stipe. That isn’t to say Eyelids don’t also sound like plenty besides R.E.M. or that they don’t have an identity of their own. They definitely do. But they do have Peter Buck producing them, and for all we (or even they) know, their very band name is meant as an oblique homage. Rapid Eyelid Movement?
Consciously or not, Eyelids are doing their part to preserve the legacy of the founding members of indie. That is more than welcome: someone has to do it, given that R.E.M.’s presiding influence seems as though it may have slightly waned over the last few years. What’s a bit surprising is that Buck is so heavily involved in the revival. He could have made Eyelids sound much less like R.E.M. than he did or not produced them at all. When he steps into the last two tracks on A Colossal Waste of Light with his unmistakable guitar playing, it’s almost as if he can’t stand sitting behind the board anymore and has to get back into the act himself. Does he miss his old band that much? Since they aren’t returning, has he taken it upon himself to produce their successor? If so, Eyelids are more than worthy heirs.