Posted on July 31st, 2013 (8:43 am) by Paul Rice

Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros' meteoric rise to fame began with, and is continually sustained by, runaway hit “Home,” the song that, four years later, is still the whole of the band's identity to most, even as they try with all their power to grow past it. But the truth is, although their 2009 debut Up From Below wore musical diversity as its banner and played a good hand of cards, its charms were mild and short-lived, easily overshadowed by the two sensational stories it had to tell: frontman Alex Ebert's eccentric, outspoken persona as the reborn Edward Sharpe character (about whom an excellent piece of journalism has already been written here) and “Home,” one of those rare alternative songs that catches fire in the real world and makes a band into a household name, often before the band is quite ready for it. The band's 2012 followup Here saw them honing in on the upbeat, rambling hippy element of their sound, cutting some of their extraneous eccentricities in favor of a more digestible and satisfying package. But their new, self-titled LP shows a band treading water, overwhelmed by the possibilities they've created for themselves.

Elements that comprise Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros' sound: a little of Arcade Fire's baroque, anthemic grandeur; some strongly asserted feel-good vibes reminiscent of Grateful Dead or late-career Beatles; some show tune-inspired sugary-sweet choruses and narrative lyrics; a handful of that same gang-vocals-and-tons-of-instruments energy that vaulted Of Monsters and Men onto Top 40 radio; and a little bit of that vague sense that a band has tons of members, but isn't sure how to put them to use, calling to mind The Polyphonic Spree or I'm From Barcelona – two other bands that seem to have lots of tag-alongs for group vocals, but lack the sense of a communal creative process that keeps the similarly swarming Broken Social Scene dynamic and exciting. The band's title is telling – it's the frontman and his band, more a republic than a commune. And as Here started to prove, that formula can really work when Alex Ebert has enough ideas to go around and utilizes his bandmates effectively.

There some great moments on Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, most of which come up in the album's first ten minutes. Opener “Better Days” sets the scene for Ebert's character in 2013: a little tired, a little discouraged, but holding onto his faith and optimism for all he's worth. The next two tracks, “Let's Get High” and “Two,” are the tracks that definitely ought to make it onto the Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros greatest hits one day. The former is a hand-clapping, toe-tapping romp featuring an infectious melody, charmingly silly verses, and a chorus which Ebert must have been slapping himself for not coming up with sooner: “Let's get hiiiigh... [implied wink] ...on love!” The band's energy and Ebert's songwriting are in full form and perfect sync until the three minutes of slow fade-out where Ebert melodramatically wails “man in the meeer-ror” – probably should have been cut. Bombast aside, “Two” does the same thing better (and is the band's bounciest piece to date) – infectiously catchy, pleasantly optimistic, full of detailed, ear-candy instrumentation. It's one of the few songs that really lets underutilized sidewoman Jade Castrinos let loose with that husky, ragged voice that gave “Home” its wings.

The band really takes a nap on the second half of the album. There are redeeming qualities to some songs – “If I Was Free” has this hilarious call-and-response where the band sounds like Muppets as they prompt Ebert to sing each line. And there's a pretty cool drama to the chorus of “This Life” where the band gets all gospel, calls Ebert a liar as he howls “I'm telling the truth to...y'all!” But this side of the album also contains some of their dullest, most frustrating songs yet. “Life Is Hard,” in particular, sounds like the least sincere, most contrived consolation song ever, aping ”Under Pressure” in its glorious-heroism-amidst-tragedy approach, but just coming off as vacantly glam. “Celebrate it in a song / promenade it with everyone / elevate in in a song / and I'll be there to play it, don't get me wrong!” goes Castrinos' verse before Ebert goes all Freddy Mercury with “Life is it! Life is it! It's where it's at! It's getting skinny, getting fat!” No doubt that this song was written with earnest intentions, but the band sounds so wrapped up in their stylistic choices that any sense of honest meaning is left far behind. This song will not make you want to “Come celebrate / Life is hard!” Thankfully nothing else on the album is as directly frustrating; most of these songs just frustrate because they don't pop – eclectic instruments aren't used purposefully, group vocals become so ubiquitous that you don't notice them, and Ebert just isn't a very engaging frontman when surrounded by so much sonic clutter. It's easy to imagine the band members sitting in a nervous circle with their instruments, no one daring to play anything too striking for fear of upstaging the others, no one daring to put their instruments down. Alex Ebert fills the role of frontman exceptionally, but as the de facto band leader, it's hard not to blame him for this lack of direction.

It's understandable that Sharpe and his Zeros would want to distance themselves from “Home.” They started in a new direction with Here and were praised for it, but the new album doesn't show much further progress. In the absence of enough new ideas, perhaps it might be time for them to worry less about musical diversity, less about not repeating their hit, and spend some more time on songcraft and putting all the sounds and talents they wield to better use. They did it once – “Home” is an indie pop masterpiece, well-crafted and expertly arranged – but they'll need to do it again while they're still relevant if they don't want that song's gigantic reputation to outlive them. Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros isn't a bad album, but in the light of what this band needs to prove, it's a waste of time.

Track List:
1. Better Days
2. Let's Get High
3. Two
4. Please!
5. Country Calling
6. Life Is Hard
7. If I Were Free
8. In The Lion
9. They Were Wrong
10. In The Summer
11. Remember To Remember
12. This Life

Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros: Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros
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Our Rating

53 / 100
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