Over the past few years, it seems like a troubling, synthetic trend is seeping back into popular music. It is hard to say whether that is a legitimate theory or my technophobia run wild or merely the craggy cynicism of someone growing older. But it feels like music’s blood is running thin, diluted by Auto-Tune and other computational heresies.
I expected something similarly anemic from Air Review’s second album, Low Wishes, which will be released January 29, but discovered something more challenging to decipher. The premeditated, electronic meddling is there, but so also are several moments of lyrical mastery and even a few bars of melody that held my attention.
First, Low Wishes is much more organic overall than you would think. The earthy resonance of banjo and piano is mingled with programmable beats. There is a very delicate stacking of elements synthesized and real. The exactness of this science would be impressive if it did not sound so wearyingly sanitary. The words are eked out at a high, reedy distance, at times so taciturn you would swear you were sharing a room with an intercom. It is music perpetually held at arm’s length.
The prevailing theme of Low Wishes is the reality of growing older while struggling to realize a corresponding maturity. Singer Doug Hale laments that wisdom and character do not necessarily accompany age. In this way, the album preaches a relatable pathos whose sound has much in common with the indie, suburban anthems we now claim as rally cries. For sure, white kids pump their fists for their own particular reasons. But Air Review keeps from sailing over this cliff of melodrama by sticking to a sober maturity. As they confess on the title track, “I’ve got no wishes now that I am old.”
Other standout tracks include “America’s Son,” where our heritage of self-obsession is given a clever examination, and “Waiting Lessons,” which evokes a longing for the Promised Land in the vein of Southern Spirituals. But these are belied by the more canned moments of Low Wishes, where the faintheartedness of the compositions drown out otherwise earnest ideas.
In the end, I can see Low Wishes being embraced. I have to live with the uncomfortable possibility that this is what the general public likes to hear. I have no doubt that Air Review’s music is charming enough to deserve the warm reception. If nothing else, Low Wishes is consistent in its aesthetic of being frustratingly pleasant, even if that aesthetic often feels like being hit in the face with a wet, Brawny towel.
My main contention is that Air Review has chosen a medium for their message that lacks concreteness. The band has been clear that they wanted to find a voice with Low Wishes distinct from their debut, brit-pop influenced debut. But there is a fine line between nuance and tip-toeing. Where Air Review has gone for the soft-sell, they have simply gone too soft. The musical and lyrical themes of Low Wishes are solid, even admirable, but they need a healthy dose of iron.