In 2006, I wrote a review of Band of Horses' debut album, Everything All the Time, and in retrospect, I think I approached it all wrong. I opened by quoting a chorus of their breakout song "The Funeral" ("At every occasion I'm ready for a funeral") and talking about the recent death of a loved one. In the months leading up to that sad event, I jumped whenever the phone rang, my stomach falling with dread of the worst news. Living far from family, I knew to keep my bags packed. I had to be ready for a funeral.
"The Funeral" seemed not only to express a painfully familiar feeling but to make it sound epic and immense — as large as the effect that actual funeral would have on my life. That is not exactly what the song is about, but both musically and lyrically, Everything All the Time introduced a band adept at writing songs specific enough to catch your ear but loose enough that you could burden them with your own interpretations.
I expect many fans felt a similar attachment to Band of Horses' music, which made Everything All the Time one of the more promising debuts of the 2000s. It arrived at a moment when indie rock seemed capable of a kind of modest majesty, an outsize sound that could be cinematic without being soundtrack-y and uplifting without resorting to schmaltz. The group bore the weight of endless comparisons: Ben Bridwell's reverbed vocals recalled My Morning Jacket, his peppy melodies suggested the Shins, and the band's granola crunch belied a deep knowledge of Neil Young's greatest hits. And yet, the album — and, to a lesser extent, Band of Horses' follow-up, Cease To Begin — combined trendy sounds in a way that transcended trendiness.
In 2012, however, it's hard not to feel like I put too much of myself out there in my review of Everything All the Time. I stand by my praise of the album, but Band of Horses has strayed so far from their original mission that I wonder if the weight of such personal projection was too much to bear. Since their debut, the band has been in near constant upheaval, with founding member Mat Brooke leaving the band, Bridwell moving from Washington State to North Carolina, and a new lineup solidifying around the time of their third full-length and major-label debut, Infinite Arms, in 2010.
In fact, Bridwell referred to that album as Band of Horses' true debut, since it introduced a semi-permanent lineup, but it sounds slack and skittish, like a band that had lost its ability to discern what it did well and what lay beyond its reach. For every keeper like "Dilly" on that album, there is a stinkbomb like "Factory," which shows just how lenient Bridwell's internal editor has become: "Now or later, I was thinking it over by the snack machine," he sang, straight-faced. "I was thinking about you in a candy bar." Worse, the music on Infinite Arms sounds just as unwieldy, with keyboards curdling into a parody of the uplift the band once achieved so gracefully.
Released last month, Band of Horses' Mirage Rock compounds these bad impulses. Bridwell pens some real clunkers, ranging from goofball mawkish to disturbingly naive.
This precipitous drop-off in Band of Horses' music is unfortunate, if only because they once seemed intent on upending indie rock's notorious insularity. By making a virtue of hippie-dippiness and turning lyrics like "The world is such a wonderful place" into a raise-your-lighter-apps anthem, Bridwell actually sounded subversive in the 2000s. But now, Bridwell seems to have finally embraced his inner bro, content to sound lazily chummy like a postmillennial Seals & Croft.