We’re on Your Side
By Conrad Amenta | 11 November 2009
Hard to admit that We’re on Your Side is a step down for this great band, if only because it’s at least as technically adept and effortlessly listenable as their Private Cinema—an album that, two years after its release, continues to cause the involuntary wetting of one’s pants. But it seems something’s happened in the meantime: 2007 was a thematic flashpoint, a crystallization of theretofore-unexplored paranoia and agitation, and Private Cinema was one of that year’s best for it. Then came an EP with covers of both “Paranoid Android” and “Take on Me,” and a sort of foreshadowing of dark to light we could have never predicted; the band now resorts to a sort of banal positivity, lyrics better associated with the kind of poisoned neo-hippie movements whose modus operandi is non-engagement. (Think Broken Social Scene—no matter how appealing their music they never seem to be singing about anything except being Broken Social Scene.) We’re on Your Side is about, it turns out, the band being on your side. While it at least confesses that there’s a reason for the band to state it’s on your side—an admission of bad things in the face of a strong insistence that art not harsh anyone’s mellow—the album acts as a sort of side step to those bad things rather than a head-on address. Music this consistently gorgeous deserves a little better.
Insofar as that gorgeousness drives the record aesthetically, “Long Gone” and “Meet and Greet” are about as rhythmically inventive and attractively arranged as anything Slaraffenland have ever done. But therein is revealed another trend tied to the band’s newfound optimism: the band-wide chant. Once used to great effect by Arcade Fire and during Modest Mouse’s brief flirtation with mainstream success, it’s since been used beyond the point at which it succeeds to sweep up or arouse. Slaraffenland don’t overdepend on the tactic, but coupled with the aforementioned buoyancy of the record it sounds as if the band is attempting to tap into a just stale trend of epic catharsis. It’s not enough to dilute the graceful bridge of “Meet and Greet”—or its knowing half-time breakdown, both among reasons why it’s the best song in the band’s catalogue—but the overplayed context is unforgiving. (I suspect the song will stand, and perhaps be exposed to less harsh exposition, with time.) Ditto the discordant shuddering in the bridge to “Too Late to Think,” which is among those products of the band’s collective vision that makes the listener wonder if Slaraffenland have in them an OK Computer (1997). It wouldn’t surprise me.
The record’s strongest traits—its highly creative drumming; the mellifluous use of horns, never used as decoration; the spot-on production—are only somewhat mitigated by its lyrical missteps. There’s nothing offensively pandering, but lines like “Hate has made us go wrong” can’t even be misconstrued as insightful. It is the band’s uncomplicated starting point, not one so obvious as to ruin the aesthetic, but this conscious simplification eliminates what made Private Cinema so bracing. “All You Need is Love” hardly breaks down barriers any more, and in fact seems downright neutered next to the concept of an engaged, thematically inspired band fully cognizant of the complexity and urgency of the times in which we write. Who knows why Slaraffenland thought articulating the obvious for the umpteenth time was necessary for We’re on Your Side. Here’s hoping next time they relocate the ideological purpose to match their obvious technical talent.