Sunday, March 6, 2016
Anberlin - Lowborn
Earlier this year, when Anberlin announced their plans to do one last world tour and record one final album before calling it quits, they sent shockwaves through our community. While this band was never as unanimously loved or respected as the primary “pillars” of our scene (Brand New, Taking Back Sunday, Jimmy Eat World, Thrice, etc.), there are still plenty of members on this site who consider Cities or Never Take Friendship Personal to be seminal classics, or who would name “(*Fin)” as the single greatest song ever recorded. Myself? I’m somewhere in between. I’ve never loved an Anberlin album all the way through, and yet I still consider their best songs (“Naïve Orleans,” “Dance, Dance Christa Paffgen,” “The Unwinding Cable Car,” "Inevitable," “Dismantle.Repair.,” “(*Fin),” “Breathe,” “Impossible,” “Take Me (As You Found Me),” and “Self-Starter” would be my hastily thrown together top 10) to be among the top discoveries I’ve made since joining this website seven and a half years ago. In other words, I’ve never been able to form a unanimous opinion either way about this band, but I've enjoyed their run nonetheless.
Then again, the collective opinion on Anberlin’s music has been anything but unanimous since about 2007. That year brought the release of Cities, regarded by most fans as the best version of Anberlin. Darker and more symphonic than the jagged pop punk of Never Take Friendship Personal, (which itself was louder and more mature than the sheeny debut record, Blueprints for the Black Market), Cities is in many ways the sound and legacy that Anberlin have not-too-successfully been chasing ever since. They went in the opposite direction on the pop-centric major label follow-up, 2008’s New Surrender, still their most maligned record, and rediscovered the darkness (but not the heart) on 2012’s mostly dull Vital.
In between, they struck gold with the criminally underrated Dark is the Way, Light is a Place, a record that put their arena rock leanings at the forefront for the first time, thanks largely to superstar producer Brandon O’Brien. Many fans didn’t like Dark is the Way…, citing repetitious lyrics and song structures that didn’t reach the heights of the band’s best material. Those complaints were at least partially valid, but Dark is the Way… also broke Anberlin out of their shell, either by allowing them to deliver mellower, more straightforward variations on their dramatic alt-rock sound (“Art of War,” “Down”) or by wrapping their hooks in skyscraping guitar riffs and Coldplay-esque orchestrations (“Impossible” for the former, “You Belong Here” for the latter).
In many ways, Dark is a precursor to Lowborn, which has the same kind of slow-burning atmosphere that made me love that album more than just about anyone else. See “Armageddon,” a tune with a slow-motion tempo and a calm, measured vocal performance from frontman Stephen Christian. Fractious guitar riffs and rumbling bass lines crackle just beneath the surface, justifying the song’s apocalyptic title, while the key line (“I built this city just to bring it to its knees,” Christian belts, as close as the song ever gets to a chorus) is almost chilling. Much of Lowborn follows “Armageddon” into its fiery furnace of ponderous rhythm, which, after Vital – a record that aspired to be the loudest, most aggressive set of songs these guys would ever record – is a nice breath of fresh air. “Atonement,” for instance, is arguably the album’s best song, an echoing cathedral of balladry that recalls both Cities and Dark with far-off backing vocals and pitch-perfect, memory-laden guitar solo.
Not every attempt at the slower tempos is as successful though: what I loved so much about Dark is that almost every song felt like new territory for the band. “Down” was a reverb-laced acoustic number, while “Take Me (As You Found Me)” was a Goo Goo Dolls-style, 90s adult contemporary radio ballad. Here, a few of the numbers feel a bit more faceless. Take “Stranger Ways,” a somber, 80s-influenced single marked by radiant synths and plentiful guitar delay. The song is fine, especially on a sonic level, but it never really finds an interesting vocal melody, and ends up being more forgettable than the bulk of the disc as a result. Worse is “Birds of Pray,” a dull four-minute slog that feels interminably longer than it actually is. It’s arguably the least inspired Anberlin have ever sounded.
Lowborn is also a mixed bag when the band decides to kick up the tempos and turn up the amplifiers. Opener “We Are Destroyer” is an easy highlight, sparked by a powerful and aggressive hook that starts this album off in virtually the same exact fashion as every other Anberlin album. “It’s just a matter of time, we could lose it all,” Christian bellows on the chorus: it’s fitting introduction for an album pre-dubbed as a final chapter. The propulsive “Velvet Covered Brick” is equally good, with a speaker-shredding guitar line that makes better use of the band’s 80s influence than “Stranger Ways” did. As for late album triumph “Losing it All,” the song is notable if only because of the pummeling drumbeat and the arena-ready guitar solo at the center.
The only “louder” number that really falls flat is “Dissenter,” but it does so in such comically overblow fashion that it singlehandedly brings the album down a notch. Stephen Christian is a terrific frontman, with a voice capable of reaching operatic heights in both pitch and emotion that rival Bono at his best. With that said, though, he’s never been a good screamer, and his shouting on “Dissenter” sounds uncharacteristically bored at best, laughably dumb at worst. Not even a slowed down break section that recalls “(*Fin)” can save the song.
Ultimately, though, it’s not the songs that will make or break Lowborn for most listeners, but the mixing and production. Shortly after revealing that they were in the process of crafting their final record, Anberlin announced that they had assembled a “dream team” of producers to help them make their swansong all that it could be, including longtime producer Aaron Sprinke, Copeland frontman Aaron Marsh, and Underoath producer Matt Goldman. To record the album, the band broke apart, with each member working with a different producer. Goldman tracked the drums in one city, Marsh handled the bass and guitar in another, and Sprinkle teamed with Christian to record the vocals elsewhere. In other words, this was a record built not by a band jamming in the same room or even the same studio, but by a group of guys divided by miles and state lines.
Admittedly, there are worse ways to make records, and all of the individual components actually stand out here much more than they did on Vital, where Sprinkle handled the full production job and blended everything into an indistinct and inorganic wash of sound. (Lead guitarist Joseph Milligan is the biggest beneficiary of the new recording strategy, delivering one stellar solo after another.) Unfortunately, the mixing work on Lowborn (courtesy of Adam Hawkins and Chad Howatt) is shoddy at best, and the vocals often get buried and lost in the mix in such a way that probably would not have happened if everyone had recorded their parts together. It’s a small gripe, but one that means that Christian’s vocal lines don’t always hit as hard as they should, and for an Anberlin record, that's bad news.
Luckily, Lowborn is a fairly strong record on a song-for-song basis, and the added emotional heft of it being a swansong helps to elevate it above the weaker entries in the band’s catalog – even despite its numerous issues. It doesn’t hurt that the album goes out in solid fashion, first with the volcanic “Hearing Voices,” second with “Harbinger,” the band’s luminescent parting shot. The latter is a tad dull as far as Anberlin closers are concerned (this is the band that gave us “Naïve Orleans,” “Dance, Dance Christa Paffgen,” AND “(*Fin),” after all), but it still lays the band’s legacy to rest in an appropriately wistful fashion. “I don’t wanna go now, But I know I’ve got to/For you to remember me,” Christian sings on the refrain. The lyric suggests that the band is breaking up as a means of burning out bright rather than fading away. One could argue that they’ve already descended from their peak days, and that they aren’t really “going out on top” by breaking up now, but regardless of reasoning for departure, Lowborn is an accomplished swansong that will only affirm Anberlin’s legacy for most existing fans. It also won’t win any new fans, but given the circumstances, that’s probably a moot point.