Saturday, July 14, 2012

Modern Classics: "Bloom"

Wistful dreams are palpable in Bloom, Beach House's new album (released on May 15th). As if elicited from a Terrence Malick film, the songs imbue a softness that you can almost taste, all at once tranquil, joyful and melancholy.

The musical influences of Beach House are a delightful mixture, most notably 80's The Cure and 90's Enya, with a side helping of vintage electronica. The second track "Wild" provides a plentiful dose of echo-y, starkly picked guitar tones that seem to be directly lifted from The Cure's Disintegration (a good theft). Despite the annoying synth cymbal that pervades the percussion, the song is lifted to mystical heights, as is the entire album, by lead vocalist Victoria Legrand.

Legrand's voice is remarkable in a number of ways. Perhaps most notably, it sometimes seems androgynous, as the opening track "Myth" reveals. The first lines of the song are sung low, and bring to mind a bit of Janis Joplin's husk. At other times, Legrand sounds beautifully feminine, as on tracks like "Lazuli" where she channels Enya's breathy harmonies. Toward the end of the song, Legrand's voice is multi-tracked with both mid-range and gorgeous high notes that emit a striking beauty.

The fourth track "Other People" slides into an effortless, smooth groove that will suck you in like a vacuum. Legrand's voice is at its most comforting here, submerged in a soft echo and speaking of a wonderfully simple realization in the chorus: "Never thought that it would mean so much / Other people want to keep in touch." The second verse speaks of a blissful time: "Somewhere nothing could reach us / These days go by." At the end, Legrand hazily murmurs underneath the final verse. Is she saying "I love you"? It's impossible to know for sure, but it's pure ecstasy.

Not all of Bloom is euphoric. On "Wishes," Legrand's tone becomes a few shades darker. Impressionistic lyrics like "Wished on a wheel / How's it supposed to feel" are sung in a way that make her feelings known. Later, the music is hushed, serving as a lead-in for Legrand: "One in your life / It happens once and rarely twice." The aura here is potent, a lesson learned in no uncertain terms.

"On the Sea" is Legrand at her most wistful. Backed only by a piano for much of the song, a reflective melancholy pervades lines like "On the sea, we'd be forgiven / Our bodies stopped, the spirit leading / Wouldn't you like to know how far you've got left to go." "On the Sea" melds into the final track "Irene," a slow burner that is paced in a way so as to leave as much room for reflection as possible. The album's deftest observation is the centerpiece here: "It's a strange paradise," Legrand intones in sing-song-y lullaby mode. This refrain is repeated numerous times over the song's final three and a half minutes, which seems to give the delightful impression of added meaning and nuance each time.

The songs on Bloom are circular in nature, with the verse, chorus and bridge melodies sequenced in neat succession. You won't find any guitar solos or other improvisations here. What you will find is layer upon layer of reverb-drenched atmosphere. The echo-immersed keyboards, guitars, synth percussion, live drums and vocals are overlayed in such a blissed-out fashion as to leave the listener in a trance. Don't be surprised if you feel the need to return there again and again.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Modern Classics: "Port of Morrow"

The Shins' fourth album Port of Morrow feels relentlessly positive. This may come as a surprise to those familiar with the band's previous work. The Shins' brand of indie rock, starting with 2001's Oh, Inverted World, was marked by an intoxicating blend of wistfulness and melancholy, with a good dose of beguiling lyrics and poppy melodies. The low-fi quality of their recording style added to the gray mood, but also added charm. As The Shins expanded their sound with keyboards and a variety of guitar effects, they also expanded their emotional palette with more upbeat themes over their next two albums, and the recording quality became more defined.

With Port of Morrow (released on March 20th), The Shins sound as crisp as ever, and the results are startling. Songs like "The Rifle's Spiral" and "Simple Song" surge happily forward with resonant percussion and bass, supplemented by shimmering bursts of guitars and synthesizers. Slower, more mid-tempo tracks like "It's Only Life" and "September" create a more subtle and reflective mood, but are no less richly recorded. The album indeed sounds more "produced" than the band's previous outings, but the new sheen suits the songs just fine.

What's particularly striking about Port of Morrow is that each song seems to be on its own separate mission. Despite the shared feeling of optimism, the musical stylings are remarkably distinct from one track to the next. "Simple Song"'s exuberant power chord blasts gel perfectly with lead singer James Mercer's poignant lyrics of finding comfort in the love of a girl. In "No Way Down," a strong, addictive dance beat creates buoyant energy that by this writer's recollection is uncharted territory for The Shins. "For A Fool" establishes a lounge-style, vintage 70's feel with reverb-heavy surf-guitar licks, backed by warm strings. "Fall of '82" has a distinctly Beatles vibe (particularly in the chorus), complete with a nifty trumpet solo following the bridge.

The epic ninth track "40 Mark Strasse" is a wonder to behold. Beginning with a simple acoustic theme, Mercer relates his reflections on observing a young German prostitute on the streets. A potentially titillating subject turns into a surge of empathetic emotion, particularly in the chorus: "Blown like a broken kite / My girl, you're giving up the fight / Are you gonna let these Americans put another dent in your life?" Backed by stunningly beautiful vocal harmonies, the chorus lifts the song to spiritual heights rarely encountered in a rock song. The near-perfect unity of melody and subject matter that is evoked in "40 Mark Strasse" elevates it as a singular piece of art, one that is worth the price of the album alone.

Taken collectively, Port of Morrow feels like a treasure trove of The Shins' greatest hits rather than a cohesively themed album. Each song knows where it's going and unmistakably arrives at its destination, albeit a little too quickly at times. The album's 10 songs clock in at just over 40 minutes, which seem to go by in half that time. This can create an impulse to put Port of Morrow on repeat, which may be another indication that The Shins know exactly what they are doing.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Modern Classics: "In Rainbows"

One indicator of a classic album is its “timelessness” or “quintessence,” the idea that one can listen to it in almost any situation or mood and instantly and effortlessly be immersed in it.

Radiohead's 2007 LP In Rainbows achieves this in spades.

The first two tracks “15 Step” and “Bodysnatchers” combine for an excellent 1-2 punch to start the album. The former's intricate beat seems to weave both electronic and live drum tones, which begin on their own for a few measures and are then joined with lead singer Thom Yorke's vocals. It isn't until after the first verse that the bass and guitar appear—an unexpected but pleasant surprise. “15 Step”'s smooth groove transitions well into “Bodysnatchers,” a fast-paced rocker that features otherworldly tones and vocals.

The heart of In Rainbows starts with the third track “Nude.” Imminently peaceful and calming, the song's hypnotizing beat, layers of strings, delightful vocal harmonizations and meditative quality continually astonish upon repeated listens. The way Yorke inflects his voice during the chorus both mesmerizes and comforts. “Now that you've found it, it's gone,” he intones calmly. “Now that you feel it, you don't.” Yorke seems to be in full reflection mode. “You've gone off the rails...” His disquieting observation ends up being a soothing thought. The following track “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” is similarly calming, but with a faster beat that is seamlessly intertwined with nimble guitar picking. This somehow provides a fitting base for Yorke's vocals, which ebb and flow from tranquil to urgent.

The album's midpoint and finest achievement, “All I Need,” is a tour de force of emotional depth. Two ethereal cello-sounding notes are joined by a surprisingly funky beat. Soon, a bass-heavy synthesizer establishes the theme, a haunting number that provides a compelling palette for Yorke's vocals. His voice here is at its most direct and unwavering as anywhere on the album, with themes of insignificance and longing. The chorus seems to shift the tone: “You're all I need,” he sings twice. The depth of feeling here is arresting, on the one hand stating a realization, while on the other aching with longing when he continues: “I'm in the middle of your picture, lying in the reeds.”

Yorke is often content to deliver his vocals in falsetto-style with little pronunciation of the lyrics, while at other times a line will pierce through clearly. The effect of this makes In Rainbows a collective projection of emotions and feelings rather than a consistent conveyer of messages. Since Yorke's voice often acts as an additional instrument, there isn't an overriding idea that one comes away with. This is especially evident in “Reckoner,” a jangly march-style number that features Yorke's ghostly falsetto weaving in and out between layers of evocative strings and insistent guitar.

When Yorke does decide to emote clearly, the results can be starkly poignant. “I don't want to be your friend, I just want to be your lover,” he softly confides in the opening verse of “House of Cards.” The remainder of the song's lyrics are less clear, but it doesn't seem to matter. Shimmering strings and guitar effects bubble under the surface, illustrating Yorke's desire. The album's most straight-ahead rocker “Jigsaw Falling Into Place” is next, nicely picking up the pace of the LP's back-end.

From beginning to end, In Rainbows builds an atmosphere that is wonderfully easy to get lost in. There are a multitude of amazingly creative achievements within the rock and roll framework present here, from inventive percussion to ethereally beautiful synthesizers to strings layered to perfection to Thom Yorke's inimitable voice. The key is that these elements are woven together seamlessly, and nothing feels gimmicky. It's an essential album, arguably Radiohead's best to date.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Modern Classics: "Fleet Foxes"

Some great albums take awhile to get into. The initial listen can seem like work rather than recreation; it can sometimes take another two or three spins before the newness of the sound begins to rub itself off, becoming more comfortable and familiar with each successive listen. And then it soon becomes obvious: "This is a great album - why did it take so long to realize it?"

Fleet Foxes' self-titled 2008 LP is not one of those albums. It's greatness is apparent upon the first listen. Indeed, the immediacy of the music can be startling, in part because of what was already stated: even great albums are usually discovered gradually. Fleet Foxes, rather, is akin to sitting in the woods on a pleasant fall afternoon and breathing in fresh, organic mountain air - there's no gradual discovery of how great the experience is, it just is.

A cursory categorization of Fleet Foxes pure, organic sound would be a form of folk-indie rock. But to really get to the heart and soul of the album's sound, one must start with the lead singer, Robin Pecknold. His voice is an effortless, pure tenor that anchor's the band's songs in such a way that recalls vintage 70's folk. Pecknold's vocals are recorded with an echo-tinged effect a-la John Denver, and they are similarly free of any pretension whatever. And while their earnestness is plain to hear, there is also a delightful gentleness to them, that at times can seem like they are imparting mountain lullabies for adults.

To pigeonhole Fleet Foxes as nostalgic folk, however, would be a mistake. The album delivers a series of delicious musical surprises throughout, beginning with the opening track "Sun It Rises." After a brief old-time folk verse intro, lush acoustic guitars fill both speakers, with the theme plucked lightly over them. Keyboards gently fade in in the background, and after the first verse, a banjo joins the peaceful melody. But then, after a harmonized chorus, a fuzz-tinged electric guitar rings out the theme sharply, instantly turning folk into rock. On the next track, a gorgeous vocal harmony-driven song called "White Winter Hymnal," a surfer-style electric guitar again sneaks its way in between verses, following along with a vocal line. And then there's the wonderful third track, a flat-out danceable rock song "Ragged Wood" that features a tempo change midway through, done with such a deft hand that the change doesn't seem at all gimmicky and fits perfectly.

Although the tone of Fleet Foxes could be described as one of furrowed reflection judging by what seem to be intense lyrical themes, the feeling of peace one feels while listening to the album is rarely disturbed. Even when Pecknold speaks of "staggering through premonitions of my death" and "turning myself into a demon" as he does in "Tiger Mountain Peasant Song," he immediately follows with a gently-sung series of "la-da-da's" that fade out the song. In "Your Protector," a beautiful flute opens the song which later contains a starkly orchestrated passage involving the accusatory lines "You run with the devil." But even this doesn't hold sway with the reoccurring themes of waiting for a lover to return. Later, in perhaps the most poignant track on the album, "Blue Ridge Mountains," all concerns seem to be cast aside as Pecknold sings affectionately of a getaway with a brother to the "country side." In the song's unforgettable chorus melody, a familial challenge will be taken up, amongst a "quivering forest," frozen rivers, "moon glow," and finally "morning light."

In the album's final track "Oliver James," Pecknold sings with considerable vigor about a family caring for the body of a deceased brother. Even with seemingly foreboding hints of "ancient voices ringing soft upon your ear," there still seems to be peace in the body "washed in the rain no longer." It is here that Pecknold's voice ends the album a capella, which at first comes across as abrupt, but is perhaps a fitting conclusion in its austerity. Rarely does an album come across so naturally and so true, from beginning to end.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Modern Classics: "Carnavas"

Silversun Pickups’ 2006 LP Carnavas is an album that pulsates with energy. The guitars buzz and wail, the drums pound, the bass throbs, and the keyboards swirl. It is indeed a hard rock album, even bordering on alt-metal. But it doesn’t make the mistake of being noisy for noisiness’ sake, as many hard rock bands tend to lean toward. Silversun Pickups deliver this set of songs in rich, voluminous layers. With added volume, they become thicker instead of merely louder. And with repeated listens, their richness becomes increasingly evident.

What are also evident are the band’s influences, chief among them being the Siamese Dream-era Smashing Pumpkins. The heavy, layered buzz of the guitars and lead singer Brian Aubert’s high-pitched tenor indeed bear a certain resemblance to Billy Corgan’s early 90’s work. But where Corgan’s vocals often seemed whiny, Aubert’s are instead almost ghostly and a bit wistful. And where the Pumpkins tended to wallow in gloominess in order to elicit sympathy from the listener, Silversun Pickups draw the listener in to a soundscape that feels mysterious and ethereal, yet is somehow striving for clarity and truth. Indeed, the otherworldy quality in Aubert’s voice sometimes bursts into an aching wail that somehow drives home the importance of the song. At times, Carnavas seems like a sustained quest for the band, one where they are intent on sifting for insight while surging relentlessly forward with guitars and drums blazing, but leaving the listener free to interpret the song for its own sake.

Carnavas is indeed a heavy album that will fill out every part of a speaker system, but somehow it doesn’t feel heavy. The album’s opener “Melatonin” sets this tone—it starts loud and it stays loud, but it crackles with positive energy that compels the song forward and keeps the listener in its grip, thanks in part to a head-nodding beat by drummer Christopher Guanlao. The next two songs are great examples of the band’s talent for striking the right balance between loud and soft dynamics. Midway through “Well Thought Out Twinkles,” Nikki Monninger’s driving bass line and Joe Lesters’ atmospheric keyboards are left alone for a few measures, before being joined by Guanlao’s drums, and then Aubert’s vocals. This layering effect tempers the song and ends up giving more weight to a searing guitar lick that happens a bit later. “Checkered Floor” slowly builds from soft keyboards, a steady guitar part, and a measured vocal line to an explosive chorus that culminates in a driving guitar solo, but then comes down to a softer guitar and drum part for the outro, accompanied by soft murmurings from Aubert. These dynamics are crafted expertly throughout the album, and are a large part of why it doesn’t leave the listener feeling worked over by the end, as many hard rock albums tend to do.

The non-heavy heaviness of Carnavas is also due in part to the lyrics. To say that they are vague would probably be an understatement—they certainly don’t seem to make much sense at face value, and it doesn’t help that they aren’t printed in the liner notes. But in their own way, Aubert and Monninger (who contributes a great female vocal counterbalance in a number of tracks) are able to convey a sense of depth and meaning through the way they emote them. In fact, there are times throughout the album where they seem to make perfect sense simply by the way they are emphasized. However, repeated listens tend to confirm the fact that they are very much open to interpretation. This in turn helps avoid a heavy-handed edge to the album and very much fits its mood—one of ardent striving yet alluring mystery.

When broken down, Carnavas is a wonder to behold of pure rock and roll craftsmanship. Even in its “noisiest” outings, one can discern the layers of detail and the intricacy with which it was recorded (at least three separate guitar tones can be discerned at the same time in “Melatonin,” for instance). The drums are a particularly striking feature of the album due to the variety of their sound. At different times, they echo, shimmer, and seem slightly muted, and at other times are firmly in the forefront. In “Three Seed,” for instance, they are given a striking clarity—at one point you can actually hear the snares vibrating against the drumhead, as if the listener is sitting in the studio next to the drums.

What’s unique about Carnavas is that it is a muscular and hard-driving rock album, but still has the ability to wash over the listener with a subtle yet energizing ambience. This is no easy feat, and there’s nothing quite like it.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Modern Classics: "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots"

Herein is the first installment of an ongoing series that I will call "Modern Classics." This series will take a closer look at some of my favorite albums that have come out in the last ten (or so) years. I consider them so good, in fact, that I have deemed them "classic." I realize that it may seem like an oxymoron to call a relatively new album a "classic," but that's ok. That's why these are "modern classics." ;)

I'll admit that I had my doubts about the Flaming Lips' 2002 LP Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots after reading about it in a Rolling Stone "Best of the Decade" list. How could an album with such a ridiculous name be any good? Would it be some kind of geeky tribute to a Japanese anime show? My doubts were quickly laid to rest with my first listen.

The music itself is an intoxicating combination of super-catchy vocal and guitar hooks that are set to a relaxing vibe of electronic effects, unusual guitar tones, and head-nodding beats. It's hard to over-emphasize the delightfully easy-going mood of these songs (with the exception of the explosive fourth track, the instrumental "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots pt. 2"). Lead singer Wayne Coyne's voice has a lot to do with this--it is high-pitched yet syrupy smooth, and there is a subtle quality of wonderment and innocence in them, despite some often heavy subject matter in the lyrics (which we'll get to later). The musical theme of the album is characterized by softly-layered textures of electronic hums and beats that are combined with live guitars and drums, but done with such a deft hand that the songs are seamless and imbue a warmth that leaves the listener soothed.

The comforting, dream-like quality of the music ends up being especially effective in giving weight to the lyrics, oddly enough. In the album's opener, "Fight Test," Coyne seems to be grappling with the concept of manhood, with lines like "to fight is to defend/if it's not now then tell me when would be the time that you would stand up and be a man." The cheerfully-relaxed melodies of the chorus enhance a humble reflection about finding the answers: "I don't know how a man decides what's right for his own life - it's all a mystery." In the hypnotic "Do You Realize??", Coyne combines amusingly obvious (if slightly morbid) observations ("Do you realize - that everyone you know someday will die") with endearingly positive ones ("you realize the sun doesn't go down/it's just an illusion caused by the world spinning 'round"), which are backed by happy string arrangements and vocal harmonizations. The combined effect proves to somehow be life-affirming.

What's odd about Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots is that half the songs are self-examining reflections, and the other half seem to be vague, sci-fi-themed ruminitions, as if the band were making a single-themed concept album and then changed their minds halfway through. But somehow, it all works. The centerpiece of the album is the title track "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, pt. 1". It should be the most tongue-in-cheek song of the lot, with its children's-story lyrics like "she's gotta be strong to fight them - so she's taking lots of vitamins." But Coyne delivers the vocals with the same innocent wonder that is present throughout the album. The song ends up being perhaps the catchiest tune on the album, with it's bouncy, infectious chorus (that will remain in your head for days) and a funk-style beat that's difficult not to dance to. That a song like this can seem normal amongst the others speaks to the strength of the album as a whole--no song seems out of place, despite themes that seem to be all over the map.

Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots can indeed seem like a strange trip initially. A psychedelic vibe sometimes peaks it's way through by way of an occasional trippy lyric and odd electronic sound effect. But it's an album that gets better and better the more it is experienced, which speaks to its greatness. Once begun, it's hard not to get lost in its atmosphere. It's a strange but wonderful trip.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Thanks for the memories, Creed

Creed will always hold a special place in my rock-loving heart.

I know that this would no doubt cause some (okay, a lot) of rock critics and those with a more “refined” taste to snicker. I’m fine with that. In fact, I would join in with them, if it were any other band that are currently lumped under the umbrella term “post-grunge.”

I suppose it could have had something to do with timing. Back in 1998, I was a miserable freshman in high school. As with so many other teenagers throughout modern history, music was becoming a therapeutic balm that was helping me wade through the awkwardness and pettiness that defines teenagerdom. I would listen to the radio in my room for hours, particularly a rock station out of Iowa City called KRNA. I credit that station with exposing me to some of the best music that rock has to offer—everything from Led Zeppelin and Tom Petty to Pearl Jam and Stone Temple Pilots.

One day as I sat listening, a new song came on by an up and coming band called Creed. I still clearly remember listening to the song for the first time, and being blown away. Something about that song sounded different then any other song I had heard before, and it wasn’t the tune or a particular guitar riff. It had more to do with the feeling projected by the melody and lyrics. It felt earnest, deeply layered, and most importantly, spiritual. The lyrics spoke of the soul, intentions, and angst. Angst was nothing new in rock music, of course, but this was a different kind of angst—not torment caused by other people, but the torment caused by one’s own personal failings. The song deeply affected me, even though I didn’t know how at the time.

After discovering “Torn,” I later heard more of their songs, such as “My Own Prison,” “What’s This Life For,” and “One,” the latter two displaying the band’s versatility in being able to write about positive yearnings of the spirit as well as darker reflections. My Own Prison would become the second album I ever purchased, and I was soon obsessed with the band. I loved the growl of Mark Tremonti’s guitars, which at times buzzed with a satisfying rawness that didn’t sound overly-produced, and at other times rang out in clean, melodic riffs. I loved the laid-back yet powerful drumming of Scott Phillips, which was often content to be relatively sparse, but at other times would blast with power and speed at just the right moments. I’ll even admit that I liked Scott Stapp’s vocals, which most of the time sounded like he was singing through his nose. But he sang with feeling, and no one can deny the strength of his pipes.

What really set Creed apart in the end, and what I most loved about them, were their lyrics. They were often poetic, evoked Christian imagery and themes, and were always thought-provoking. “My Own Prison” explored the consequences of sin and the way in which it imprisons the soul. It then turns into a plea to the Almighty, complete with a vision of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross and a name check of the Archangel Gabriel. “In America” delved into the fake freedom and immorality of our country, even going so far as to explicitly decry abortion. It includes such classic lines as “No one’s right and no one’s wrong in America.” “One” examined the frustration in wanting to change the world for the better yet feeling helpless. It goes on to suggest that our quest to become united is being hampered by political correctness. These were big themes for a rock band to sing about, and it excited me. My parents had recently converted to Catholicism, and I had come into the Church as well, mostly at my parents’ behest. My faith was very young and underdeveloped, but it was nonetheless there, and it was hungering for nourishment. Creed’s music was becoming that nourishment. The music itself was hard, aggressive, and energizing, in a way that I found to be the ultimate self-expression of freedom and something that spoke in particular to my teenage soul. Yet at the same time, the melodies and lyrics were both introspective and positive, both self-examining and compellingly God-aware, which spoke to my faith. It was a combination that I had never encountered before in a rock band.

But as with all good things in life, they must eventually come to an end, or in this case, a steady decline. And for me, that decline started rather quickly with Creed. Needless to say, when their next album Human Clay came out a year later, I bought it immediately, having only heard one of its new songs on the radio. I was disappointed. While the album had its moments, it didn’t grab me like My Own Prison had. For one, it suffered from a common problem that plagues the sophomore albums of bands who have a multi-platinum debut album—overproduction. There was a new sheen on the guitars, and the drums sounded overly crisp and too perfect. The rawness and immediacy that made their debut album so compelling was gone. What made matters worse, many of the songs themselves sounded painfully similar and tended to blend together. With some exceptions (notably “Higher” and “Wash Away Those Years”), the band sounded like they were trying to force out the earnestness and deep meaning through increasingly bombastic lyrics, backed by a whirlwind of intense guitars and drums, as if they felt pressured to prove that their first album wasn’t a fluke. What’s lacking is the honesty and simple songwriting of their debut.

Nevertheless, by the time their third album Weathered arrived in 2001, it was clear that Creed were on to something. They had managed to make their brand of spiritual/Christian-tinged hard rock mainstream. The group enjoyed hugely successful tours, over 20 million albums sold, and a Rolling Stone cover, and yet were a band that many loved to hate. They were justifiably seen as the band at the forefront of “post-grunge” rock, along with acts like 3 Doors Down, Staind, Fuel, and others. My interest in Creed had hugely waned by this time, but I still felt I had a connection to the band, albeit a complicated one. I was torn between respecting them for their Christian roots and making My Own Prison and loathing them for helping to pioneer a style of rock that I had grown to despise: the maddeningly formulaic post-grunge sound that had countless imitators who were dominating modern rock radio. All the same, I still got passing enjoyment out of listening to Weathered. Creed had added some variety to their overproduced sound, including strings, a different drum sound, even a Native American chant in one song. I now considered the band to be a guilty pleasure rather than an act to be taken seriously.

Things started to get rocky for Creed over the next few years, and even though I wasn’t an ardent fan anymore, I still couldn’t help but follow what was going on (I guess true love dies slowly). It became clear that Scott Stapp was becoming an alcoholic, as reports surfaced of alcohol abuse and a near suicide, as well as an infamous concert in Chicago where he appeared drunk onstage and slurred his way through the songs. Then in 2004, Creed officially broke up after Stapp’s bandmates could no longer stand his erratic behavior. By that time, the Creed albums on my CD shelf were becoming a bit dusty, as my musical taste was expanding to both old and new indie bands like the Pixies and Interpol, as well as revival acts like the Strokes and the Killers.

When I heard about Creed’s reunion earlier this year, however, a wave of nostalgia hit me, and I felt a small glimmer of hope: “Maybe they can regain their former glory!” Things looked even more hopeful when I read about how Stapp felt remorse for his past behavior, reconciled with his bandmates, and was eagerly creating music with them again. Was it possible that the band could rekindle the old magic and get back to their roots?

Alas, it was not to be. Full Circle, released this week, is without a doubt Creed’s worst outing. Every post-grunge cliché is hammered out relentlessly from start to finish: double-bass drumming, 80’s hair metal guitar solos, and a wall of distortion accompanying every chorus. Even Mark Tremonti’s signature guitar tones that make a Creed song instantly recognizable are gone. Most disappointing of all are Scott Stapp’s lyrics. So over the top, unsubtle, and completely devoid of insight are they that I found myself both cringing and giggling throughout the album, sometimes at the same time. “How is stepping back a move forward?” Stapp barks in “A Thousand Faces.” I don’t know, Scott, you tell me. In “Fear,” Stapp assures us that he is, in fact, passionate: “Feel the passion in my breath.” And in “On My Sleeve,” there’s apparently no debating where Stapp’s heart is, or if it’s a good idea to use all caps in the liner notes: “My heart is tattooed ON MY SLEEVE.” Frankly, I was stunned by such a sharp decline in lyrical depth from past albums. Despite my disappointment in the musical direction that Human Clay and Weathered took, I still found Stapp to be digging deep from time to time. On Full Circle, it’s as if he threw the lyrics together at the last minute, hoping that something profound would magically arise. So much for wisdom coming with age.

Still, I find that I keep coming back to My Own Prison, when Creed were young and restless, wrestling with God, themselves, and the world, and pouring it all into their music, pure and unadulterated. They took a miserable freshman in high school along for the glorious ride, and I will be forever grateful.