The Internet makes me laugh.
If you woke up Monday morning and were disappointed to discover Radiohead had not self-released an EP called Wall of Ice, you’re not alone. Lots of people were expecting it to happen, despite the fact that it doesn’t exist, it never existed, and Radiohead never promised anything of the sort.
How did this happen? Therein lies a tale, of the cautionary kind.
Sometime last week, a new Radiohead song appeared on a message board. No fanfare, nothing. Many assumed it had been leaked, although we don’t know that. What we do know is this: the song is called “These Are My Twisted Words,” and data with the file included Monday’s date (8/17/09) and the phrase “Wall of Ice.” We also know this: Thom Yorke made a statement in the last few weeks that his band will not be recording or releasing any albums anytime soon. They’re not interested in the album format, he said.
All right, so that’s all we know. But within a day, online speculation had reached a fever pitch. Some took Yorke’s statement to the press and extrapolated that Radiohead would be releasing EPs. Then someone else speculated that Wall of Ice would be the name of the EP that Radiohead would release. Then someone else took the ball and ran with it, saying Radiohead would likely be putting out a digital EP called Wall of Ice on Monday, August 17. Someone else noticed that www.wallofice.com directed visitors to Radiohead’s online store. It was all happening.
You see how this snowballed? By Friday, it was an accepted fact online that a new Radiohead EP called Wall of Ice would be coming out Monday. I even saw one online pundit who stated unequivocally that the EP would contain four tracks. Really.
So Monday rolled around, and Radiohead did only what they seemed to say they would do: they made “These Are My Twisted Words” available for free download. That’s it. No EP. But online speculation had reached such a whirling height that some were actually let down by the band’s “failure” to deliver Wall of Ice. What should have been a celebratory moment, the release of a new Radiohead song, turned into a disappointing situation thanks to Internet guesswork and hysteria.
There’s still no proof that Radiohead didn’t engineer this whole thing just to make a point. Either way, the point has been made. One thing no one seems to be pointing out is that www.wallofice.com now leads to a strongly-worded admonishment against online speculation. “Don’t publish bullshit only to get hits on your webpage,” it reads. “Don’t create your own stories after reading one post on a message board. Get your facts straight.”
Of course, the big question is, how is the song? Well, you can hear it for yourself at www.radiohead.com. It’s another formless web of guitars that meanders around for five minutes, never landing on any sort of melody. It’s not particularly good, has nothing on the songs on In Rainbows, but is certainly better than, say, “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors.” If that’s any kind of recommendation.
* * * * *
So. Let’s talk Mutemath.
There have been bigger, more important albums in 2009. There are bigger, more important albums still to come. But there are none I’ve been anticipating more than Armistice, the second album from Louisiana’s Mutemath. There’s a certain mixture of dread and out-of-my-skin excitement that happens when a band I love follows up an album I adore. It’s not so much a question of whether the new album will be as good as the old one, but whether it will mean as much to me.
I discovered Mutemath on my last day at Cornerstone 2005. They were, in fact, the last show I saw, and my traveling companion Chris Callaway tried to convince me not to go. I almost missed out, and I would have considered that tragic, since Mutemath live blew me away. Their sound is very much indebted to the Police – Paul Meany’s voice, Darren King’s drumming, a fondness for dub-style basslines – but updated and refined. On stage, they are madmen, kind of an acrobatic musical carnival.
That said, they’re a very serious band, tackling big themes and big ideas. Their self-titled debut, released in 2006, was pretty much perfect. The songs were huge and memorable (particularly the one-two punch of “Chaos” and “Noticed”), and in his lyrics, Meany took on the big questions – “Stare at the Sun” is about looking for faith and not seeing it, “Chaos” is about holding on to something bigger as the world crumbles around you. Their sound, equally fueled by razor-sharp guitars and an array of synths, and held together by King’s dazzling hi-hat, was like nothing I had heard in years. And with each listen, the album grew and grew.
I ended up calling it the third-best album of the year, behind Keane’s amazing Under the Iron Sea and Joanna Newsom’s inhumanly enchanting Ys. But truth be told, I still listen to it more than either of those. I hold the self-titled album (the original issue, mind you) in such high regard that I don’t know if the band could ever have equaled it in my estimation.
But of course, they had to follow it up. They just took their sweet time doing so. My sense of dread mounted as I read reports of studio in-fighting, of scrapping whole sessions, of multiple producers. I heard new songs played live, and didn’t like them. I started to worry. Did Mutemath pour everything they had into a perfect first album, leaving nothing for the second? Just how disappointing would this be? I started counting the days until August 18, like a condemned man.
I’ve listened to Armistice three times now. That’s the minimum I think this record will take to sink in. The first time, you’ll be comparing it to the debut, and counting the ways it falls short. The songs aren’t as powerful or as serious, the running times are shorter, and the album is diverse to the point of randomness, in contrast to the first one, which played like a single piece of music. You’ll be reading the lyric sheet, too, which will only be a distraction.
The second time, you’ll start to hear things. Little bass figures, tiny countermelodies, Darren King’s indomitable drumming. You’ll notice that a song like “Odds,” which you dismissed at first as a three-minute trifle, is suddenly compelling. You’ll hear the Mutemath-ness in seemingly incongruent tunes like the jazz-ballad “Pins and Needles.” Songs like “Electrify” and “Backfire” will come to life for you. The album will still sound like a collection of songs, as opposed to a singular statement, but you’ll start to care less and less.
The third time, you’ll be under its spell. Armistice is a very different kind of Mutemath album. It’s sharper, it’s a little more surface-level, and it’s surprisingly varied. There is nothing here with the immediate shock and awe of “Chaos” and “Noticed.” Opener “The Nerve” still hasn’t clicked with me, with its single-note chorus and less-than-stellar lyrics. Some of the band’s decisions will seem strange at first, like the title track, a slice of horn-driven soul that ends with screeching strings. But give it a few spins, and it (mostly) all works.
I was initially surprised how little of this record sounds like Mutemath. Now I can’t imagine thinking that way. On third listen, this all feels like Mutemath to me, albeit a new-model version of the band. The essentials are there in every song. “Backfire,” one of several to come alive for me on repeat spins, is startlingly minimal. King holds it all together, but Greg Hill’s guitar is almost nonexistent, while Meany’s synth bass rattles and hums, leaving holes in its wake. The melody is bare-bones, and as the song progresses, it almost seems to be made of nothing. This is a huge departure from the everything-all-the-time sound of the debut.
That sound is certainly here, though. Just check out “Spotlight,” which you may know from the Twilight soundtrack. This is Mutemath, all blistering hi-hat, kinetic bass, killer melody and enormous sonic weight. Just try not to love this song. You’ll get similar vibes from “Electrify,” a killer song that is unabashedly about sex, and features some of King’s best, most exhausting drumming. You’ll also dance to “Goodbye,” a surprisingly ‘80s pop confection that will get lodged in your skull. In a good way, of course.
But it’s the songs that sound nothing like you’d expect that thrill me. “Pins and Needles” finds King delicately brushing his drums while Meany croons over processed electric piano, some of it recorded backwards. This one takes some time to sink in, but the subtle melody is just incredible. “I’m growing fond of broken people,” Meany sings, “as I see that I am one of them.” Listen to the chord changes under his “I’m one of them.” They’re unexpected, and terrific. Nothing about this song grabs you immediately, but after a few listens, everything about it does.
“Clipping” is a minor masterpiece, opening with fuzzy, distorted synth, but slowly blossoming into a beautiful, dark ballad. The chorus shines, and the processed strings are breathtaking, especially after everything else drops away in the middle eight. “I don’t know who to trust anymore, I don’t know what I want anymore,” Meany sings, and even if you don’t share his existential despair, you’ll be singing along.
“Odds” seems like an interlude at first, caught between two more immediate songs. I’m not sure which of the other three is singing it, but it’s not Meany, and the song is slight – it’s just electric piano and drums, for much of it. But listen to it unfold, layer by layer, and by the last chorus, you’ll be mesmerized. Similarly, “Lost Year” seems to take the place of “You Are Mine” as the ballad of the bunch, and I was initially underwhelmed by it. But after a couple of listens, the gorgeous strings and subtle melody took hold. This song is the emotional heart of Armistice, examining a broken relationship with defeated grace. “If there was something that could have saved us, we’d have found it by now,” Meany laments. It’s just lovely.
And then there is “Burden,” the nine-minute finale. It’s the only song on Armistice that significantly breaks four minutes, the one song on which the band’s vaunted musical experimentalism is given free rein. And oddly, it’s one of the least successful. The song runs out of steam quickly, and as it slides into an unrelated second half and an unnecessary drum coda, I can’t help but think that the album would have been better without it. I’m sure this will be impressive live, but on record, and particularly as the final track, it’s cluttered and overly long.
And it exemplifies my biggest problem with Armistice, still. It just doesn’t hang together very well. One by one, these songs are terrific, and the production is top-notch throughout. But the self-titled debut took you by the hand and led you from one song to another, using segues and interludes, and the music itself was of a piece. Here, you can tell Mutemath is changing, transitioning into something else before your ears, and the result, despite the sharper songs and briefer running times, is messy and unfocused. Perhaps in time I will grow to understand how it all works as a whole, but as of now, I’m not feeling it.
Armistice is at once a more streamlined and more difficult album. As such, I remain conflicted on it. Its pleasures are very different than that of the first album, and yet, every song sounds like Mutemath to me now. It’s just a completely different Mutemath, if that makes sense. But that’s okay, because I like this band too.
But do I like them as much? Not yet. Armistice is an excellent little record, for the most part, but had it come out first, I don’t think I would be the Mutemath fan I am. It feels like a troubled effort, like 12 songs that refused to be born easily. Mutemath felt effortless, this feels labored. It reveals itself slowly, but doesn’t coalesce, and it’s never quite as magical as the first album was. There are songs here that will blow you away, but as a whole, Armistice is a lesser work.
Can I forgive that? Sure. Mutemath is a restless and creative band, and their album is similarly restless and creative. Next time, I hope the sessions aren’t as fraught, and the evolution not as strained. Mutemath is becoming something else, and when they get there, the results will be spectacular. Armistice is merely a postcard from a way station, a stop along the path. Even so, it’s pretty great stuff, and a worthy follow-up, if not quite an unqualified success.
I plan to keep on listening, and in the end, that’s all I can ask for – an album I want to play over and over. What I’m feeling isn’t disappointment. It’s more akin to meeting someone again after many years, and finding out the ways both of you have changed. That’s a process that takes some time, and I expect I’ll keep finding things to love about Armistice in the weeks and months to come. The hope is that I like where they’ve been enough to stick around and find out where they’re going.
Next week, catching up a little bit, with Owl City, Patrick Wolf and Brendan Benson. After that, we’ve got new ones from David Mead, Mew, Arctic Monkeys, the Black Crowes, David Bazan, Yo La Tengo, Phish, Muse, the Elms, and many, many more. Not to mention a certain box set of remasters out on September 9. Stay tuned, it’s going to be a busy fall.
See you in line Tuesday morning.