San Francisco – “Can we be real?”
OK, let’s be honest – how often is it, in the most honestly painful scope of reality, that someone actually asks this question of oneself? Hmmm? Would I be terribly cynical/naïve/clueless if I were to say…er…almost never?
Yeah, that’s what I thought.
Ok, broader inquiry: how often is it that someone thinks about asking this question? … … Still no one?
Schematically, the two questions previously posed by yours truly fall within the realm of the rhetorical. Even if a reader or three had concrete answers to either question, one must assume that any response(s) given would be a) completely subjective and/or b) infuriatingly succinct, and therefore superficial. Anyone who assumes their own reality must then assume the reality of their own perception, which in turn assumes the totality—and therefore, the limitations–of their perception. Similarly, anyone who questions a position within reality must then question the concept of reality itself, and therefore must question accepted perception.
“Can we be real?”
Yes, and no, and maybe.
Australian electronic outfit Jagwar Ma apparently has no qualms in questioning the elusive characteristics of existence. Of course, the band appears to be real—as does anything, or anyone—but the concrete proof of such proclamations remains subjectively unknown.
Back in 2013, Jagwar Ma struggled not with the if and the how—instead exploring he why and what—with the debut LP Howlin’. Drenched in the complexity of humanity and its inherent absolution, Howlin’ made no excuses when it came to facing emotional obstacles and fervent, corporeal roadblocks. Where Howlin’ succeeded in drawing from a plethora of scarred human tissue to further its mission of shedding light on humanity’s tenacity and endurance, the band’s sophomore effort dials back the tangible metaphors present on its debut, instead aiming to highlight a more hesitant, crouched emotional reverie. The band’s target has barely wavered, yet the trio’s approach is more guarded, more cautious, more intentional. Rather than diving into a multitude of styles as Jagwar Ma did on Howlin’—emulating The Kinks, The Zombies, and even Yeasayer at times—the band is more focused on forwarding its own idiosyncrasies, navigating newer and often more vulnerable terrain. Every Now & Then exhibits a band at once comfortable in progressing its own publicly consumptive, artistic imagery, while simultaneously bridging the dangerous pitfalls a sophomore album can present to the artist and audience. The sound is always grander, the lyrical content is sometimes more verbose, and the content as a whole is frequently more adventurous than that found on Howlin’. With Every Now & Then, the question of “Why?” is tired and antiquated; instead the album is rife with moments that instead pose the question, “Why not?”
The term “sophomore slump” is one that has been thrown around for years, a lackluster alliteration that found footing in the decades prior to my inauguration into the league of music journalists around the year 2010. Admittedly, I have referenced this archaic term countless times when talking about follow-up efforts that fall like awkward Tetris blocks after an artist’s or band’s stellar fame-making debut – though to be completely fair, I only invoke the toxic term as a point of cultural contrast. Whether it is alt-J’s This Is All Yours, or Disclosure’s Caracal, or SBTRKT’s Wonder Where We Land, or most recently Glass Animals’ How To Be A Human Being, I summon the conceptual idea of accepted shortcomings that go hand-in-hand with an outfit’s second full-length effort as a basis for comparison. Generally, I argue that the “sophomore slump” is only a myth—the last true example of which being MGMT’s Congratulations (which honestly, is still not even that bad)—but being a sort of legendary concept it that has been hard to grasp over the better part of this decade, it is rather easy to highlight the strengths of certain artists’ sophomore LPs against such a simplistic, monotonous model. Trying to be objective when discussing such a divisive and polarizing art form such as music—which is meant to be subjective—is incredibly difficult, so finding these sort of easy touchstones (such as the famed “sophomore slump”) makes my job a little easier. But anchoring an opinion on spotty generalizations is dubious and can eventually lead to tangled misinformation. That being said, Every Now & Then, on the surface, could easily be viewed as a fabled “sophomore slump” for Jagwar Ma, but it shouldn’t be.
The one thing that Every Now & Then lacks is cohesion. All in all, it’s an album chock-full of magnificently crafted songs that surprise its audience and illuminate hidden truths. Its propulsion as a whole is uncontested. Each of the handful of singles released, prior to the album’s eventual drop, were carefully calculated, and the selected songs provided just enough hook, just enough aural riptide to pull fans back into the evolved sonic terrain. Lead single “O B 1” was the first song to be released from the new effort, and is a massive, swirling vortex of sound that is truly mind-boggling in its initially-perceived randomness, yet at the same time it illustrates the delicate care that has been put into the most minute properties of timbre and tone that make up each fleeting note. The radio version has been bastardized by the cruel hands of brevity, but as an unaltered piece the song actually breathes; it has life. The wails heard at the end, during the repeated refrain, echo a spectrum of emotion that just cannot be expressed within the confines of language, and thus the desperate joy is felt only through the listener’s visceral understanding of somatic sound. It is the emotional centerpiece of the album—and is perhaps the only well-placed song on the LP.
The album starts out fine enough, with the introductory “Falling” bleeding into “Say What You Feel”—which carries that terribly simple yet devastating lyric “Can we be real?”—but then after that, it all sort of falls apart. The epic “Give Me A Reason” is strangled, being flanked by recent concert favorites “Loose Ends” and “Ordinary,” as it is the album’s longest, most adventurous track—the message of which is lost amongst two songs clambering to be singles. The entire second half is completely disjointed in its construction, but the most frustrating thing is that the material is there. The content is there. It’s just not where it is supposed to be. The last two songs—“Don’t Make It Right” and “Colours of Paradise”—simply do not belong on this record. After “O B 1”’s conclusion, it all feels so rushed; the flow is lost almost immediately, and it reads like that fourth season of Arrested Development—which was fine and dandy and still pretty great, but it just didn’t live up to the days of Rita Leeds and Mrs. Featherbottom.
I hate writing sassy reviews. Usually, if something doesn’t work for me, I’ll actually refuse to write about it. I’ve gotten a lot of flack because of my position on such matters, but honestly, what good does it do anybody if I just write a thousand words about an album that, for me, just plain sucks? Nothing good can come from that. Far too often have I fallen prey to negative reviews and subsequently missed out on artists/albums that I end up loving in the long run just because I read a bad review or saw an alphanumeric score that was lower than a C or a 7—and so I elect to abstain from writing a bad review. This is not the case with Every Now & Then. I actually really do like this album. I will undoubtedly listen to it for years. At the same time, I don’t think it’s fair to say that it’s amazing because I honestly feel like given this band’s magnanimous talent, the trio just didn’t pull it off. It feels hurried, and that’s a shame… but there is a lot of really great stuff here. You can still feel the urgency; you can taste the yearning for idealism. The content is there; it’s just disorganized and jarring. The pulse that made Howlin’ so great is lost on Every Now & Then. To be fair, Jagwar Ma set the bar so high with its debut (much like MGMT) that it’s almost impossible to match. Then again, the band’s live performance of this material is phenomenal and reads much better onstage than on album.
Every Now & Then struggles with a lot of uncertainty, which is what lifts this album from lackluster smorgasbord to fascinating exploration. It may seem disjointed at times, but in reality, it is a careful juxtaposition of ecstasy and despair. It is far from being a terrible album—quite the opposite—but in my opinion it feels fragmented, like a great movie whose scenes are on shuffle. Maybe that’s what Jagwar Ma was going for, and if so, bravo. But in all honesty, it reads like a choose-your-own-adventure novel, packed with great chapters that have no way of reconciling one another. I highly recommend listening to each and every song on Every Now & Then individually—and of course, seeing Jagwar Ma live—but take care when listening to the album as a whole. You’ll most likely find yourself questioning reality, embracing impulses, and/or dancing wildly. It’s quite the ride, and hopefully it will make more sense to you than it has for me.
Every Now & Then is now available via Mom + Pop. Jagwar Ma is currently on tour in Great Britain, with a North American leg kicking off later this Fall, in Chicago. For more information visit the Jagwar Ma Facebook page.
Photos courtesy of Mom + Pop.
Note: This review was originally published on October 24, 2016