This is a different sort of review for me. I approached this album knowing absolutely nothing about the band or their music other than that they have a cool (if somewhat unwieldy) name. I didn’t know if it would be something I’d find interesting enough to review, but after probably ten listens over the past few days, I really, really like it and want to write about it.
Even so, I decided I wouldn’t do any pre-review research about the band’s past (if any) or read any other people’s opinions of the album, and instead I’d approach it completely on its own terms, outside of any other musical or journalistic context. So here goes…
Ok, pre-first-listen… Such a long band name. My first guess is that I’m going to be listening to some instrumental post-rock, although the album art looks more indie-rock than post-rock. Song titles are a bit on the abstract side, leaning the vote back toward something instrumental, but the song lengths fall mostly between two and four-and-a-half minutes (aside from two long tracks closing the album), which looks more like standard rock/pop/etc. Time to actually play it and find out…
My first listen was in the car, so my attention was divided. I couldn’t see the song titles, and I really just wanted to find out if I’d hate it. And I definitely didn’t hate it. The first track starts out sounding a bit like The Microphones… kind of lo-fi-ish, with just a pleasant male vocal over a simple acoustic guitar pattern recorded to keep the finger squeaks on the fretboard. Nice. Then drums, synths, and strings join in, there’s an additional vocalist in the background, and the sound gets denser, builds to a climax, and then closes with a brief return to the simple vocal-and-acoustic-guitar it started with. A strong and attention-grabbing opener.
The next track is a minute of drifting distant vocal recordings, buzzing noises, guitar, and other sounds, getting a bit clanky and cacophonous at the end… reminds me of something …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of The Dead might stick in just before starting the next track with a wall of noise, so I’m waiting for that…
But nope. Instead, track three starts with a gentle guitar figure before the bass drops in alongside some double-time drumming and the singer’s exhortation to “ease all the babies out of their wombs”. A female vocalist steps in to trade duties with the male lead from the first track. As rhythms change through the song, some of the guitar & drum patterns have a bit of an emo vibe. For me, “emo” has always been one of those musical terms, like “prog”, that’s hard to define, but it’s the sort of thing you know when you hear it. The song goes on, textures and tempos vary, moods change, sounds stop and start, vocals separate and intertwine… it’s constructed like a play divided into multiple distinct acts and scenes. I really love this track, and my hopes are now high for the rest of the album.
And the rest of Harmlessness delivers. By the end of the first listen, I was thoroughly charmed by the album, and I really wanted to hear it again. My overall impression was that it would have fit nicely alongside the 2000-era output of the Barsuk and Saddle Creek labels: Rilo Kiley, Bright Eyes, Death Cab For Cutie, Cursive… bands that pulled together elements of emo, indie, post-punk, and pop to create music that was meaningful yet also tuneful and accessible.
On subsequent listens to Harmlessness, I started paying more attention to the lyrics. I caught pieces and passages the first time, but not enough to really capture the narrative flow of the songs. My hope was that actually learning the words wouldn’t spoil the songs for me. Still knowing nothing about the band, I was guessing they’re probably mid-twentysomethings, which would put me about double the age of the likely target audience. And while there’s nothing wrong with music written by young folks for young folks, there’s the possibility that its topics and concerns won’t really be relevant to folks of other age strata.
Thankfully, the album once again doesn’t disappoint. The lyrics display a worldliness that may be filtered through twentysomething experience but isn’t limited to the naïve perspective of youth looking out at a universe of possibilities. Instead, there’s a surprising amount of maturity and poetic world-weariness in the words here. I suppose that’s not surprising given the band name, which conveys a sentiment that one might more likely associate with someone who’s seen the world and been through all its ups and downs, rather than someone just starting out on the path of adulthood. Seriously, any band that can work the word “anhedonia” seamlessly into its lyrics gets major bonus points in my book.
This collection of songs contains much meditation of the meaning of life and death, the tension between hopes and limitations, and the rollercoaster ups and downs of struggling with depression. From affirming:
“Between earth and sky, we’ll build a fire so high they’ll turn all the lights out and all will sing: ‘I am alive, I deserve to be’” (“Rage Against The Dying Of The Light”)
“You are normal and healthy to forgive yourself” (“Mental Health”)
and resignedly hopeful:
“I really did dig my own hole, but I can see the top, I’m climbing out” (“I Can Be Afraid Of Anything”)
to more cynical:
“We set up a safety net but it was above our heads” (“We Need More Skulls”)
“What do you think is going right in your life? What can you know about life if you’ve never died? You think the world is alright but that’s a lie, ‘cause we’re afraid to die and that’s alright” (“You Can’t Live There Forever”).
and frankly mortal:
“We’re all gonna die” (“Mount Hum”)
All in all, The World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid To Die has crafted a strong, cohesive album with instrumental arrangements that often provide an interestingly bright contrast to some fairly dark lyrical themes around the sometimes-exhausting existential struggle to persevere and find one’s own way in a world that can seem over-large, overly complicated, and dismissive of the beauty and importance of individual lives.
Postscript: So after reviewing the album apart from any external context, I started doing some research about the band. Apparently they’re a sort of collective with a fluid roster that currently includes 8-ish members, and their name is commonly abbreviated as TWIABP. They’re from Connecticut, and a lot of people seem eager to lump them into an “emo revival” that I wasn’t aware was happening (and it seems like the band bristles a bit at the label). Given the breadth of styles on Harmlessness, simply calling the album “emo” does seem a bit lazy and reductive. A press release from their label calls them “post-emo” which at least opens the door for greater possibilities. Track three, “January 10th, 2014”, with it’s beautiful guy/girl vocal interplay is actually about an anonymous Mexican woman who shot and killed two bus drivers as vengeance for repeated (and unprosecuted) assaults and murders of female passengers. So the lyric “They found two heads hollowed out in the sanctuary or on the dry roadside” isn’t just a darkly poetic metaphor. You can read more about the real-life story and watch the song’s video at NPR.
TWIABP has released one prior full-length and a bunch of EPs, but I get the impression that Harmlessness – their first album for well-respected punk/emo/post-hardcore/etc. label Epitaph (in conjunction with Top Shelf Records) is a bit of a sonic and stylistic departure from their previous output. So loving this album may not guarantee that I’ll love the others. But I’m eager to give ‘em a try. Meanwhile, here’s the band playing a couple tracks from the album in a live session: