Album Review :
Listener - Time Is a Machine

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Time Is a Machine

Artist: Listener (Twitter) (Bandcamp) (iTunes)
Time Is a Machine
Release Date: 
Carter Fraser


  1. Eyes to the Ground for Change
  2. Good News First
  3. Not Today
  4. Tornadoes
  5. I Think It’s Called Survival
  6. Everything Sleeps
  7. There Are Wrecking Balls Inside Us
  8. It Will All Happen the Way It Should

There’s not many artists putting out sounds as eccentric as Listener. Self-proclaimed introducers of “talk music,” Listener have been riding a wave of relative success following 2010’s breakout album Wooden Heart. Fans hail singer, or perhaps, speaker Dan Smith as one of the greatest lyricists of our generation, and it’s not hard to see why. The half-frontman half-poet weaves humble stories of human relatability and struggle with wisdom beyond almost everyone’s years with his strange, croaking voice. He was certainly the star of the show on Wooden Heart, but three years later Listener have released Time Is a Machine, which finds the rest of Listener taking the forefront as much as Smith.

If someone had asked me where I wanted Listener to go after Wooden Heart I would have tried to describe exactly the progression that Listener underwent to reach Time Is a Machine. My major complaint with Wooden Heart was that the “music” wasn’t always well utilized in enhancing Smith’s poetry; it was as if they were still trying to figure out how “talk music” actually works, and how those two words practically fit together. Sometimes they nailed it on the head, such as on the title track, which remains Listener’s best song. But Smith’s “talking” didn’t always play as well with the music that backed it as it could have, or at least not for an entire song. The band was chasing him, catching up at just the right times to create brief perfect storms that promised something more—I would say, promised Time Is a Machine.

Time Is a Machine is the compromise where Dan Smith is using his talking to write songs, and his backing band is starting to better understanding how to most effectively perform in accompaniment, or even in lead of him. There are times on Time Is a Machine where the listener (ha) marvels at the “music” more than at Smith, even when Smith is actually speaking. Time Is a Machine is much more musically interesting as a whole than Wooden Heart ever was, to the point that it could be successful even without its fantastically charismatic and genius frontman. Not than anyone would ever want that, but such could not be said of Wooden Heart.

There is something to be said though that this is a less impressive record from Smith as a lyricist/poet, but I would argue that this had to be so for Listener as a band to grow. Time Is a Machine is not at all a one-man album. Time Is a Machine may not cut straight to the listener’s inner self quite as deeply as Wooden Heart did, but it’s still Dan Smith quality through and through. In fact it’s a rather easily enjoyed album lyrically, because it’s downright encouraging. That’s not to say Wooden Heart wasn’t, but it did have some tough luck stories along the way. These are pick-me-up songs as much as anything, brilliant, genuine ones. I could quote-spam this album to death, but I’ll keep it to three:

And I know it gets heavy to trust carrying all our former selves around inside of us. Always leaking out of brokenness, and not many staying filled any better than me. You don’t know what you’re gonna dream until you dream it. So share your life! It’s the only way to keep it! We don’t get to do what we’re supposed do because we give up too soon, but the end is not the goal. Even seeds have to be planted and die to grow. So I try and pick up change when I see it. I try and share it and not keep it. I try to not iron out the seams, and just let it be. But I’m brand new this morning, so we’ll see.

Because we might not ever get to go back home again, and home might not exist the way we know it, or knew it to be, or maybe we’ll be so different home won’t be able to house us. Especially if we keep pulling all the feathers from our wings. But no matter how unraveled or what shape we take. We can always come home. Home inside of people and God. The way you lean is the way you fall. The way you lead is the way you follow. 

If you go looking you’ll find it when it goes quiet behind your eyes.

Post-hardcore influences are much more apparent this time around, with the obvious comparisons of La Dispute and mewithoutYou being appropriate, and La Dispute being slightly more similar. “Not Today” and “I Think It’s Called Survival” show the change off very clearly, the former starting slowly along the lines of a “Wooden Heart”-type pensive track (featuring what almost sounds like singing from Smith!) before exploding into a stunning instrumental climax, and the latter romping out of the gates like a cavalry riding into battle. The twinkly riff on the opening verse of “There Are Wrecking Balls Inside Us” adds a certain warm character that could have only been achieved with the changes Listener has undergone. The general increase in “heaviness” may have pushed Listener in the direction of their contemporaries and away from the folksier, minimalist sound of Wooden Heart, but they have adapted so masterfully that it’s hard to call the change anything but an improvement.

Overall: Time Is a Machine is the sound of a terrifically gifted and distinctively individual frontman performing in perfect harmony with his bandmates toward a very clear musical and thematic goal, and completely achieving it. It is a more confident and comprehensive work than Wooden Heart without a doubt, even if it may lack the undefinable charm that the aforementioned album had. It could even be Listener’s Brother, Sister (for those that follow the Brother-Sister-magnum-opus model of mewithoutYou’s discography)—but I don’t think it’s inconceivable that this is their Catch For Us The Foxes, and that Smith and company’s true masterpiece is just one album away. In the mean time, this may be the trio’s best album yet.

RIYL: La Dispute, mewithoutYou, Manchester Orchestra