Dougy Mandagi's feverishly operatic voice -- a spectacle in and of itself -- saves Thick as Thieves from becoming just another anodyne, stadium-ready rock trifle.
Australian anthem-chasers the Temper Trap will never distance themselves from "Sweet Disposition", the falsetto-dipped haze of young love impressionism from 2009's Conditions. They've since toyed with its arena-shaking formula, but it's a song inextricably in their plasma. The misty, dimension-digging guitar textures, church-boy harmonies, panoramic production, and grandiose indie rock platitudes are, in one way or another, present in almost every composition that the band has recorded.
Yet "Sweet Disposition" is more than just a cluster of sonic decisions; it's a rush of theatrical hyper-romanticism, one that renders desires outsized and pries open passions to reveal the sunken-gut depths and heart-spanning expanses they contain. This is also the rush behind the centripetally-bound "Woo-ooo-ooo-ooo" chorus of "Fader", the achingly repetitive, knees-to-the-floor supplications of "Need Your Love", and the wafting despair-stricken melody of "Love Lost". These moments resonate precisely because they all tap into the same melodramatic electricity that made "Sweet Disposition" so affecting. While not as numerous on 2012's eponymous LP, moments like these populate the eleven tracks of the Temper Trap's latest release Thick As Thieves, saving the album from becoming just another anodyne, stadium-ready rock trifle.
Throughout the record, singer Dougy Mandagi and company continue to do what they do best: stage a deft balancing act with the stratosphere-skidding bombast of U2 on one end of the scale and the conventional, high-energy alt-rock of Bloc Party on the other. Indeed, sonically speaking, it's wrong to pigeonhole them either as post-U2 reverb weavers or radio-courting guitar bashers. They're both of these archetypes, combined and blurred together -- a chimera of echoing chord figures, meteoric, blasting-through-the-roof dynamics, and colossal singalong choruses. On top of all this is Mandagi's voice, a spectacle in and of itself. Operatic, feverishly spirited, strong enough to shatter certain notes yet soft enough to caress others, it sometimes seems to add more scope to their tracks than Joseph Greer's coruscating, Edge-indebted guitar constellations.
In album highpoint "Burn", his voice arrives like a torch burning itself out. Amid swooning choral incantations and lashes of swirling guitar chromatics, Mandagi grips the melody to his chest like it shares the flesh of the lyric's subject. "You gotta burn / Burn / Burn just to feel alive," he sings to his lover, each successive articulation of "burn" casting a different light, emanating a different heat and color, and as each one passes through his lips, you can almost feel the conflagration -- the fire-blood moving through veins and viscera at reckless speeds -- that he's trying to conjure beneath her skin. It's a simple lyric, but one that's just as integral to rock's iconography as "Sweet Disposition" is to The Temper Trap's sound. From the overt flirtatiousness of the Doors' "Light My Fire" to the erotic high-tension of Bruce Springsteen's "I'm on Fire", the idea of burning -- for someone, for something -- has long been a fixture of the primitive poetry of rock. The Temper Trap simply distill this idea down to the verb at its core.
"Alive", another wailing-youth anthem cast in the same mold as "Burn", also treats vitality as a virtue. "It feels so good / So good to be alive," Mandagi belts in the chorus, falling into a threadbare pop/rock truism that bears the same unabashed simplicity of the chorus in "Burn", but none of its impact. Opener "Thick As Thieves" makes a half-successful play for distinctiveness by deploying a grungy roots-rock guitar rumble and foreboding, somnambulant melody. The album's second act, however, is mostly just sound and fury. Its saving grace is "Riverina", a page greedily ripped out from an epistolary novel and amplified into a vertiginous power-pop euphoria-ride that showcases a purity of songwriting that the rest of the album lacks.
What made U2's approach so singular was their ability to forge vast psychogeographic landscapes - war zones, turbulent terrains between lovers, cities without street names and gridded by unity-abrading walls -- from a few concentrated elements: the Edge's arpeggiated, atmosphere-summoning guitar, Bono's Homeric croon, Adam Clayton's hypnotic bass and Larry Mullen Jr.'s lithe, understated percussion.
Listen to "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" from '87's The Joshua Tree and one of these landscapes will unfurl before you. Compared to Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell's "Ain't No Mountain High Enough", another track that tests its protagonist's resolution with tiers of natural phenomena, with mountains and valleys and rivers that seem intent to stymie human passion, "I Still Haven't Found..." stands out because it captures the immensity of these phenomena as well as the immensity of its protagonist's yearning. When Bono sings "I have run through the fields / Only to be with you", these fields are not merely static rhetorical images, they're physical realities that fan out before you.
The Temper Trap strive to create similar landscapes throughout Thick As Thieves and, while they're not always successful, they manage to fashion a few moments of sublime vastness. Much like "I Still Haven't Found...", "So Much Sky" quakes with an exposed-to-the-elements spiritual longing, one that urges Mandagi to open himself up the subtleties of air and sun above him. "In the distance is forever / Where there is so much sky / Where all the wild ones are born", he sings, his voice a shaking fist thrust heavenward, and as he grasps certain notes, this sky gradually swells into view, stretching out over the same fields in which Bono once searched so desperately for a life-affirming divinity.