Still best known for the indie-pop behemoth / commercial goldmine that was 2010’s ‘Home’, Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros return with a third album that frontman Alex Ebert refers to as their “rawest, most liberated, most rambunctious” work to date. From the choral opening of ‘Better Days’, it is clear that this is a very different beast. That’s not to say, however, that the big chorus and rampant folk sounds that we’ve become accustomed to from the ten piece troupe are gone. ‘Let’s Get High’ embodies this perfectly as an infectious groove belies a bellowing “Let’s get hiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiigh!” chorus. Hand claps and Ebert’s rasping vocal are padded out with trumpets and a wonderful change of pace at the half way point.
Finding the common ground between bombastic and introspective is a tricky endeavour at the best of times but Ebert and co. aren’t afraid to tackle this head on. Moments of manic pop unpredictability are leveraged with deeply personal, sombre elements. The transition is less than smooth more often than not, though, and rather than illustrating the versatility of the band, these tracks are somewhat dull. The jump from ‘Two’, one of the album’s highlights thanks to the gorgeous vocals of Jade Castrinos, to ‘Please!’ is a tiresome one, the latter feeling limp and lifeless on the back of the energy that precedes it. ‘Country Calling’ does little to remedy this deflated tone in the middle of the record.
Thematically, Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros is not wholly different to the band’s previous work. Spirituality and death are celebrated in equal measure, both a nod to Ebert’s troubled past and transition into his alter ego. ‘Life is Hard’ serves both of these and is one of the standout moments as Ebert and Castrinos enjoy a sharp back and forth that accepts that not every day is a jaunt on a festival stage, while ‘If I Were Free’ is in a similar vein.
Having spent much of 2012 adding to their boisterous fanbase across the US by touring with Mumford & Sons, playing it safe wouldn’t have been a surprise. Instead, Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros have invoked the spirit of Jefferson Airplane, the Mamas & the Papas and the feel of 1960s California alongside their pseudo-Arcade Fire style vigour. As a result, the album feels a bit messy. Momentous chorus sits alongside sombre verse and the instrumentation lacks direction. This has led to a “magic” (in Ebert’s own words) element in the live shows but ultimately limits the band from reaching any sense of cohesion or style in the studio. There are great tracks here, brave moments of self-doubt and perfectly pitched pop music, but they are overshadowed by weaker moments and you found yourself hitting the skip button on numerous occasions during repeated listens.
Closer ‘This Life’ serves as a perfect barometer for the album. It ends rather meekly having allowed Ebert the centre of the stage again and, although the entire troupe are called into action for a powerful harmony, ultimately it leads nowhere. Positive notions and energy are all well and good, but some consistency and focus would go an awfully long way.