Thursday, January 12, 2012

"You still get my heart racing for you"

Safetysuit - These Times
Universal Republic Records, 2012
Four stars (out of five)

 Three and a half years ago, I think I finally started to grow up. The end of my junior year of high school brought a lot of changes: saying goodbye to some of my best friends in the world, facing failures that I'd never had much experience with before, summer jobs and, along with my first car, more responsibility than I'd ever had before. That car also brought me a lot of freedom, and that summer was an exciting, unpredictable time in my life. Indeed, I spent many nights out of the house, hanging out with friends, terrorizing the town, staying out until all hours of the night, and through all of that, music started to play an even bigger part in my life than it already had up to that point. So many records came alive on those late night drives back home throughout that summer, perhaps none more than Safetysuit's viscerally emotional debut, Life Left to Go.

Life Left to Go wasn't a perfect record: there are a few songs in the second half that I still skip roughly half the time, songs that I think veer a little too far into the realm of generic modern rock, but when the songs were good, they were great. The band had this ability to blend both pop sensibilities and U2-sized stadium rock and roll into a sound that was, while not wholly their own, instantly distinctive. There weren't a whole lot of opening tracks as good as "Someone Like You" last decade, but that was only the tip of the iceberg of what that album had to offer. There was the stunningly emotional build of "Anywhere But Here," the visceral force of "Something I Said," the hurricane of sound on "Annie," the shattering resignation of "Gone Away" or the chilling pleas of the title track, which closed the record in truly powerful fashion. Those songs were all massively important to me then, and they remain so now. They take me back in time, even as I form new connections with them, like only the best records can ever do. There are only a handful of albums that I've formed a personal connection of that level with, and for a short period of time, I think a part of me didn't want a follow-up; I just wasn't sure if the band could deliver another record like that on the second time around.

For awhile, it seemed like These Times would never see the light of day. The first single, the hook laden and lovelorn "Get Around This," dropped last April on the band's website, and the record was set for a tentative June release. It was soon pushed back to October, then to November, and then into the New Year. As disappointing as those delays were for fans, they merely allow These Times to be the first record on a fairly blank slate of music for the year, and despite my initial feeling that it was a step down from Life, repeat listens have uncovered more emotional nuances than I originally noticed, and I now think that it's something I will continue to revisit throughout the year. The torrential, anthemic opener "Believe" is a contender for album highlight, as frontman Doug Brown's voice rises through a familiar feeling verse to a soaring chorus. The song picks up right where the last record left off, recalling at once both Life Left to Go's opening (the stadium ready, guitar heavy sound) and it's closing (a few lyrical callbacks), and it feels both refreshing and reminiscent of their older material. After my mixed reaction with the band's choice of a second single for this record, "Believe" reminded me immediately that they were still the same band I fell in love with nearly four years ago.

That second single is called "Let Go," and it's also the band's biggest hit to date: a dance/electronic-influenced pop song, co-written and produced by OneRepublic's Ryan Tedder, and bearing every one of his fingerprints. It's not a bad song by any means: indeed, "Let Go" is the kind of song I would be glad to find on the radio waves (were I forced to listen to that medium, that is), but it's well below the band's usual standards. It takes a big step towards the kind of generic, repetitive pop music that I think the band avoided so well on their first record, and when I first heard it, I was afraid that These Times would fall into many of the same traps. Luckily, "Let Go" is an anomaly, and most of the tracks on this record would have fit pretty snugly on Life Left to Go. That's not to say that there's nothing new offered here, though: "Crash" is a harder-driving rock song than the band has tried in the past, while "Things to Say," the gorgeous penultimate track, employs a dusky, folk-country inspired sound that is completely new for them. Just like on Life Left to Go, though, many of this album's best moments are firmly grounded in the grandiose, from "Believe," to the politically-minded title track, to "Never Stop," perhaps the band's purest love song to date. 

Safetysuit save what might be the best for last in the form of "Life in the Pain," a beautifully subdued moment, full of ringing guitars and gentle acoustics, the band providing the perfect bed for Brown's fantastic vocals. Brown's voice has always been the secret weapon for this band: their lyrics are fairly simple and blunt, both on this record and it's predecessor, and they could easily come across as bland and cliche in lesser hands, but Brown delivers them with such thorough conviction that they still somehow manage to hit home. Maybe it's because the things they write about are so easy to relate to, but I always have just felt their songs, and this new album, especially its closer, is no different. Their last record found me at a crossroads of sorts in my life: like I already said, that was the summer where I really grew up, at least where I started to. These Times finds me at a similar crossroads, bidding farewell to things that have been a big part of my life for a long time and embracing new opportunities, but the music still resonates with me just like it did back then. Albums like this are a gift: they come into your life in a serendipitous instance and they remind you why you love music so much, remind you how some things never change, how a perfect song can still come along and take your breath away. Like its predecessor, These Times isn't a perfect record, but it is a sublimely moving one, and sometimes, that's even more important, and as long as this band continues to write records like that, I'll continue to listen.