On first, shallow listen, this album reminded me of early-eighties new wave – the fun, mostly thoughtless music that I enthusiastically enjoyed in college. More specifically, it reminded me of Fun at the Zoo, a non-influential band from Colorado College that a friend shared with me via vinyl EP. Such antiquated fun! Back in the day, the music was clever, hooky, upbeat and fun.
Radiator Hospital keeps the hyper drums, the jangly guitars, and the utter danceability, but, damn, who pissed on their cornflakes?
The first hint that something is amiss comes from the front man’s voice, as aggressively flat as a mountain-top strip-mined for coal. Sam Cook-Parrott is no Sam Cooke – he calls to mind the nasal flatness of John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats.
Then you listen to the lyrics, and no wonder he’s not belting them out with energy and pop inflections you would anticipate from the party-band music. “When I walk out my front door, I feel the rain as it hits my face. I see the broken flower vase. I see the leather and the lace. One last bird is flying to the tree; the water’s weighing down its wings. I see the way your body language changes. I see the way you look at me and the pain it brings.” Well, alrighty then, I guess I shouldn’t be expecting to hear those lyrics in the tones of Adam Ant or Thomas Dolby.
Maybe the key contrast is the energetic music and the downer lyrics sung flat. I think the contrast is necessary – the album would be an unbearable slit-your-wrist exercise in moping without it, and it would be dishonest bubble gum if they matched the music with “I just wanna dance” lyrics.
The great thing about this album is that the contrast works brilliantly. The music has your head bobbing like a teenager, but the mind in that head is dealing with broken relationships, the harm you cause to those you love, and the failing idealism of adulthood. Here’s a quotation from the lead singer, reflecting on the difference between this album and their prior album, Something Wild:
This is not a happy or idealistic album. I think the overriding message of Something Wild, even with the sad songs, was that you can still hope and dream. I think this record is the opposite. What happened in the outside world while you were dreaming?
The closing track on the album, Midnight Nothing, encompasses the conflict:
“It was a little after midnight when the first few drops fell. Did you feel them honey, or did you feel nothing? I’m forgetting faster than I ever thought I could. I’m learning I can give up trying to do good. The stars out here shine pretty, they are numerous and pure. I never cry, I never scream, I know I should.
There’s a lot of great writing on this album, and the lyrics are lacerating and sincere. “I could be strong for you. I could be wrong for you. I could be anything you’d like. I’m not fine, but I’m alright.” That’s good stuff. There’s a lot of good stuff in this album.
You can get this album from the band’s website, and name your own price. Since it was something new from a band I had never listened to, I only paid $8. I should have paid more for the enjoyment it has given me!
Next up: Brill Bruisers, by the New Pornographers (out Tuesday)