Album: New Surrender
Label: Universal Republic
Buy It: Amazon/Amazon MP3
Review by the Headless Horseman.
1. The Resistance
3. Blame Me! Blame Me!
5. Feel Good Drag
8. Burn Out Brighter (Northern Lights)
10. Haight St.
11. Soft Skeletons
12. Miserable Visu (Ex Malo Bonum)
I can’t think of a witty line or clever example with which to begin this review, so here’s some random trivia:
1. There are seven words in the song titles that begin with the letter “B.” This struck me as rather high.
2. “Feel Good Drag” originally appeared on Anberlin’s sophomore effort, Never Take Friendship Personal…Wait, you already knew that?
3. I have personally purchased four Anberlin CDs in the past four weeks.
Having now achieved every reviewer’s goal of starting off a review by talking about something other than the CD in question, I dispense with the extras. It should be noted that in this review, I will make every effort not to compare this CD to Anberlin’s previous work. This is not because I don’t think that reviews should hold bands to their own high standards. I do. But nearly every opinion I’ve seen of New Surrender can be summarized in one of two categories: either “OMG lyke this sucks cuz I <3 Cities,” or “st*u u n00b NS blows cuz its not lyke Never Take Friendship Personal.” I have decided that eugenics missed out on solving people who hold such opinions, and so I’m going to try not to be like them. This is difficult when a band has made four records, so be tough on me, fair reader. Hold me to this. I don’t want to grow up to have an IQ of 25.
*Reviewer Note: In the improbable event that anyone with an IQ that low is actually reading this, I apologize to you. I was only kidding. The Anberlin fans I read couldn’t have had IQs higher than 10.*
Enough of this madness. Let’s start this freaking thing.
By now most Anberlin listeners will know that the band writes three kinds of songs: the driving epics and anthems (“Readyfuels,” “Godspeed”), the catchy-as-anything pop songs (“Time & Confusion,” “Adelaide”), and the intimate ballads (“The Unwinding Cable Car,” “(The Symphony of) Blase'”). This has not changed on New Surrender. These three styles comprise the new record as well. Let’s talk about each in turn.
The record kicks off with its feet firmly planted in the fast and furious. “The Resistance” twists and turns through its anthemic three and a third minutes. Unfortunately, the song lets up a bit along the line; there’s never quite as much energy present as the song deserves. The lilting verses and somewhat empty-sounding chorus have something slightly missing, and by the outro, we’ve found what it is: all-out guitar shredding. The backbreaking exit solo should have been present throughout the whole song, because it’s just that freaking cool. I think this song will be better live than on record, and it’s still better a better opener than, say, “Never Take Friendship Personal,” but I was a little disappointed at the potential lost, because “The Resistance” could have been fantastic instead of merely pretty intense.
While Blueprints on the Black Market and Cities were over 50% made up of rockers, New Surrender is a little short on them. The others, fortunately, are among the band’s best work. “Feel Good Drag” (evidently sans the “The”) admittedly doesn’t rage with quite the same force, but it’s become more calculated, more cutting. The guitars sound much more atmospheric, making the verses sound less empty. The production is masterful. The bridge is less senselessly loud (yes, I always thought the screaming was stupid). Most important of all, Stephen Christian’s voice generally sounds much more amazing. He makes a few slight changes in the chorus that make the little lines sting so much better. They’ve turned a driving rocker into a legitimate presentation of one of they best songs they’ve ever written. Then Anberlin keeps going. “Disappear” is the closest sibling to past songs like “Reclusion,” and it’s the most forceful song on the record. Soaring and tuneful, it has to be considered among Anberlin’s best work.
Closer “Miserable Visu (Ex Malo Bonum)” is truly an odd bird (despite not being truly a bird). I don’t know what to make of this futuristic sprawl. It’s strangely compelling, but at the same time, it doesn’t leave me in awe or especially compel repeated listening. It drifts along on various sonic seas, including a sort of Gregorian chant in the prechorus and various keys and pad synths before building to a heavy rock end (you actually feel the weight on you. It’s crazy). The lyrics are from various Biblical passages about the end in large part, which is sort of cool and sort of incoherent (literally, it doesn’t seem to form a very cohesive narrative). I think this is an interesting song and I can see many agreeing, but I can see a fair amount of listeners disagreeing. What I can’t really picture is anyone who, after listening to this song, will have found their new favorite Anberlin tune. This isn’t a great fault, as no band can make every song they write one of their best, but in this area — the sprawling rock epic — Anberlin do have a truly exemplary record, with songs like “Dance, Dance, Christa Paffgen” and “(*Fin)” in their discography (the latter being my favorite Anberlin song), and “Miserable Visu” just isn’t quite on that plain, which cannot fail to be at least slightly disappointing.
This is part of Anberlin’s problem: most of their new songs recall not only their older material in general (this is unavoidable for most bands, and it’s not a bad thing in any case) but also specific songs from their previous work. This is where some of the new material tends to feel a bit forgettable. “Breathe” would merely be a pretty good Anberlin song if not for its sonic feel, which is a dead ringer for the superior “Unwinding Cable Car.” The resulting comparison is one that the newer song just can’t win. This is, I think, my main point of advice to Anberlin: while you can’t totally break away from your older material, a few pairs of your songs just sound too similar to each other (this is the reason I listen to “Reclusion” very often and “There is no Mathematics to Love and Loss” almost never). Watch out for this. The only time it’s left you with two exemplary songs is with “Readyfuels” and “The Undeveloped Story.” Unless you’re really confident it will work, better not risk it.
But Anberlin has, generally speaking, upped its ballad ante: the other two on the record blow all the previous ones totally out of the water. “Retrace” is magnificently emotional, with not only more interesting instrumentation than “Breathe” (a better lead guitar, better drum part, etc.), but much better lyrics. “Retrace the steps we took when we met worlds away, counting backwards while the stars are falling…” That’s true lyrical mastery, a trait “Retrace” shares with its later counterpart “Soft Skeletons”:
Stand unafraid, all the good souls stand unafraid.
When life starts to burn, and the pain returns,
I just wish that I could heal the hurt you feel tonight.
There’s life in your veins. These needles are chains to hold you down.
How can you expect to win this war if you’re too afraid to fight?
Christian’s lyrics and the band’s dense wall of guitars and rhythm are masterful at making listeners’ hearts ache for this girl. Well done, boys. Another one of your best songs rears its head.
As previously noted, unlike Anberlin’s previous work, New Surrender is mostly populated by fairly mid-tempo pop songs. These are sadly the most hit-or-miss on the CD. “Breaking” is a very solid entry, somewhat reminiscent of “Adelaide,” but it’s followed by the bouncy hi-hat shuffle of “Blame Me! Blame Me!,” which is both undeniably catchy and relatively stupid. I’m not personally a fan of the melody, but even if you are, the lyrics are hard to overcome: “Leave me out of this. Lights on sinking ships are gleaming! Gleaming! Gleaming! for mistakes you’ve made but you can’t own.” The song feels so wrong between its more-than-capable predecessor and its brilliant follower.
I’ve seen multiple reviews claiming that the back-to-back-to-back pop trifecta of “Burn Out Brighter (Northern Lights),” “Younglife,” and “Haight St.” is not only by far the worst part of the CD, but also the only thing holding back the CD from outright brilliance. This is false first by virtue of giving the rest of the CD far too easy a pass and also by being two-thirds flat out wrong. Anberlin has always been slightly more sentimental than their contemporaries (see “Autobahn,” “Cadence,” “Inevitable,” “Alexythemia,” “Time & Confusion,” etc.), and it shows most in these three songs, which is probably why they are currently being reviled. But this is unfair. “Haight St.,” like “Time & Confusion” before it, channels that sappy love story into a well-written, eminently listenable and remarkably catchy packaging that is (to me) impossible not to love. Possibly better yet, “Burn Out Brighter (Northern Lights)” is a song about living with passion and with purpose for something outside of one’s self. It’s a song to sing not only for the hook but for the message. Plus, it has the Northern Lights in it, and those things are sweet. “Younglife” is indeed a bad song. It’s sort of cute, but it’s a dreary tune set to an endless-feeling reminiscence. One of those songs to forget.
What does one take from this? Well, note that despite those who say New Surrender doesn’t feel like a progression, the band is actually honing their skills for the longterm. They just can’t write unified epics like Cities day in and day out, and so they’re working on their pop craft, the songs that don’t really take you to another world but just make you happy to sing along. In this respect New Surrender is a remarkably modest work. Anberlin isn’t showing off, writing dark and intense concept records to the point of bombast. This is a good thing, but it does make the band’s new effort feel a little too prematurely grown up: If Blueprints for the Black Market was a record that had the feel of being written by the idealistic kids boarding their first tour bus to drive to CA tour dates who subsisted on fast food, New Surrender feels like the guys wrote it from suburban homes after they put the kids to bed. This doesn’t make the record worse, and indeed it’s still quite good, but it does mean it’s a bit less adventurous and thus a little less compelling.
This, coupled with the few lackluster songs (which indeed have no counterparts on Cities), mean that New Surrender is a less essential record on the whole, but Anberlin has proved their versatility, dishing out career highlights left and right, proving that if they aren’t as moody and loud, they aren’t any less ambitious or any less a staple of the underground modern rock scene.
And for the reader with aforementioned IQ of ten, here’s a review in a nutshell: New Surrender isn’t as good as Cities, but it’s very much better than Never Take Friendship Personal, which is encouraging, because that record is the closest in style to this.
Rating: 7.5/10. Quite well done.
Standout Tracks: “Retrace,” “Disappear,” “Burn Out Brighter (Northern Lights),” “Soft Skeletons”
RIYL: Jimmy Eat World (the only truly comparable band), Yellowcard, Rise Against, The Classic Crime, Search the City (or so I am constantly told)
P.S. If you’ve read all of this, you deserve a prize. Something hilarious at the link.