On 2015’s Monterey, the Milk Carton Kids retreated inward. While earlier releases offered a traditional duo format – Joey Ryan providing a rhythmic and harmonic foundation for Kenneth Pattengale to solo over – Monterey found the two guitarists integrating their sound, weaving in and around each other, building one unified landscape with just two instruments. The sound turned endlessly back on itself, a tiny twilit universe of its own.
It was an exhilarating turn for the Milk Carton Kids, a proper transition from duo to band. But with 2018’s All the Things That I Did and All the Things That I Didn’t Do, the group enlisted the help of a broader range of instrumentalists. We didn’t get to find out how the Monterey approach might bring the group to new places. After 2019’s EP The Only Ones signified a return to the duo format, I Only See the Moon finds a middle ground: a selectively expanded instrumentation that enhances, rather than negates, the sentiments of Monterey. This record is the culmination of the band’s work up until this point, and it is as transcendent in sound and feeling as it was in the process.
Extra instruments are included tastefully on I Only See The Moon to highlight particular tracks. The album closer, “Will You Remember Me”, gets a subtle bass part, while the title track features a subdued string section. Meanwhile, Ryan plays the banjo for the first time on a Milk Carton Kids album, giving “When You’re Gone” a slightly different feel than the group’s other uptempo tunes and “One True Love” a menacing lilt. In the Monterey era, such additions would feel like sacrilege, the end of the Milk Carton Kids. But they sound more like themselves than they ever have by being so selective about departures from the duo format.
I Only See the Moon is a true album – each track knows about the other songs around it, gently pushing and pulling at their lyrical and instrumental angles. The most obvious example is the ending of “Wheels and Levers”, which ends on a melancholy rallentando, making space for the eerie string introduction to “I Only See the Moon” without a break in the action.
But subtler connections, like a recurring notion of the past and the future being as fragile as the present, run throughout I Only See the Moon. Sometimes, this is something to rejoice in (“North Country Ride”), sometimes it presents an impending catastrophe (“Will You Remember Me”), and sometimes it signals eroding hope (“One True Love”). The idea is visible from multiple angles, shapeshifting depending on the narrative perspective and instrumentation: a genuine examination of the loneliness produced by fleetingness.
I Only See the Moon‘s highlight is “Wheels and Levers”. The vocal harmony is already something to write home about, with Pattengale using his falsetto to add drama to Ryan’s humble delivery. But the marquee event is the instrumental break, in which Ryan’s accompaniment trends downwards as Pattengale’s solo endlessly and fruitlessly fights Ryan’s gravity as it climbs the minor scale. At the end of the solo, Pattengale scoots back down the ladder, giving up in time for a verse about love fading in time.
Meanwhile, the lead single, “Running on Sweet Smile”, has the gravity of a full-band affair while leaning only on the original duo arrangement. Pattengale and Ryan’s harmonies are joyous and evocative, inviting an impassioned singalong (yes, I have indulged). The song doesn’t need anything else to reach that height, so the band left it as-is.
There are some moments of real beauty here. The first time Ryan comes in on vocals in “North Country Ride,” gliding alongside Pattengale, creates the most assured, peaceful moment in the Milk Carton Kids’ now-storied catalogue. But the tenderness of “North Country Ride” does not dismiss the fraught elements of “Wheels and Levers”. I Only See the Moon can handle all of it.