A Second Look at Mutemath's Fourth

In my day job, I work with scientists. And I have never met people more excited to be wrong.

These are people who spent decades puzzling out an elegant picture of what the universe is made of and how it works, and have spent every day since trying to break that picture. No answer is sacrosanct. If they poke holes in well-established theories, if they knock long-standing edifeces to the ground, then they call it a good day. These are people who know that being wrong is the first step toward being right, and there are usually a hundred wrong steps in between. They’re fine with that.

Me, I hate being wrong.

I hate it so much that I’ve been putting off writing this particular column for something like six months. That’s about 180 days, and my soundtrack for an inordinate number of those days has been Mutemath’s fourth album, Vitals. Upon its release last November, I panned Vitals, calling it “a wretched example of a band giving up on everything that made them special.” I called it “the furthest this band has fallen, the worst music they have made.” I even called it “one of the biggest disappointments of my year.” And at the time, I truly believed it.

I’m glad I ended my screed with the words “I’ll keep listening,” though, because that’s exactly what I did. I kept listening. And listening. After a while, it wasn’t out of a sense of duty, but because Vitals had grown into an album I wanted to hear, over and over. I shared it with people reluctantly, and several of them told me I was insane for not liking it. I kept listening, and about half a year ago, I came to the understanding that maybe, just perhaps, I had been wrong in my initial assessment. And I kept listening. The songs played in my head. A few months ago I realized that I liked every single song on the record, even the ones I found miserable on first listen.

And then, a couple days ago, I found myself playing the album as I got ready for work. I’m usually very good about stopping my morning music when it’s time to leave, but this time, I didn’t. I quite simply didn’t want Vitals to end. I kept it playing all the way through the final seconds of “Remain,” and sauntered into the office about 10 minutes late. That’s when I knew I had to write this. I’m rarely ruled by music. Rarely does music reshape my schedule and my life, demanding my attention. I enjoy Vitals so much that I made myself late for work so I didn’t have to turn it off.

So. I was wrong. I’ve spent some time trying to dissect my reaction to this album – why I was so put off by it at first, and why it so completely pushes my pleasure button now. I think I laid it out in that first review. I’ve been in love with Mutemath since their first album, and Vitals is the farthest from that sound their evolution has taken them. But here’s the secret I was missing: it really isn’t. It’s true that the core of the Vitals sound is synthesizers, replacing the warmth of guitars with a digital coldness, but the heart of this record hearkens back to that first one. So many of these songs now sound like direct descendants of the ones I still love from the debut, played in a new way.

One of the first Vitals tracks to click for me was “Safe if You Don’t Look Down,” which I dismissed initially as a synth-y home demo. I somehow missed the beautiful complexity of the melody, and the euphoric rush when the guitars enter about two-thirds of the way through. This song’s bridge is so perfectly Paul Meany: “Hide away your fears and take my arm, hold your balance, rest assured we’re right where we belong, with our chances, flying over seas of unknown ground, we won’t ever drown…” That part especially gets in my head and won’t leave, nudging against my brain. The melody is amazing, and it drives this already splendid song to new heights. And somehow I totally missed it.

Over time, that ended up being the case more often than I want to admit. “Stratosphere,” a song I always kind of liked, took hold, its swirling synths among the album’s best. The low-key “All I See” revealed itself to be a poem of uncommon beauty, probably my favorite Mutemath love song. I cannot keep from singing it. “Composed,” which I also waved away as a demo, now feels like the perfect breather, and the chord changes behind Meany’s “you give this old man hope” are unexpected and gorgeous. I sniffed at “Best of Intentions,” calling it a stab at Hall and Oates’ sound, as if that’s a bad thing. I think it’s the most fun moment of this record, and I look forward to it every time now. The instrumentals feel like important links in this chain now, not just wordless interludes, and the thick synth solo in the title track is one of my favorite things on the album.

I still have reservations about two songs, and they’re the obvious ones: “Joy Rides” and “Monument.” Opener “Joy Rides” remains my least favorite thing here, and I stand by the statement that it sounds like a Lexus commercial. But it’s fun, and it starts the album off on an upbeat note. “Monument” is still a little cheesy for me, but somehow in my first listens I missed the swell bridge section, Meany and his falsetto winning my heart before the heavenly synths come in. It’s still not the foot I would have chosen to put forward, but it has its charms.

Those are the only criticisms I have to offer, though, and by the time “Remain” fades out, they’re long forgotten. “Remain” is the one track that I unreservedly liked when I first heard it, and it’s only grown in stature for me. It’s this album’s “Stall Out,” a glorious cloud of atmosphere, only this one is unrelentingly hopeful. “Just keep trying, just keep fighting, just keep going, just keep surviving…” It’s among the band’s finest moments, on an album that I now realize is full of them.

So yeah. I was wrong. Not only is Vitals a terrific record, it’s eclipsed both of its predecessors in my eyes. I see now that Armistice was a decent album, but a timid one, treading water when it should have been bold. And Odd Soul, though it works much better for me than it did upon its release, is a mess, Meany and company trying on ill-fitting blues-rock outfits and attempting to create an album from jams. Vitals is the real deal, a reinvention that works beautifully. They’re a million miles from where they started, but they can still see where they’ve been, and that’s the best place to be.

In a couple weeks, Mutemath will release Changes, a remix album drawn from Vitals. I’ll buy it for sure, and I will be listening with nearly a year of built-up appreciation for its source. I suppose I could have waited to write this, and passed it off in a paragraph or two in the middle of a new review, but that wouldn’t have quite captured the depth of my about-face on this album. I absolutely love Vitals now, the way I love only a few albums from the past few years, and that change of heart deserved a full elaboration. So here it is.

Also, though, the next few weeks will be massive ones for new music, and I didn’t want this to get lost. Next week alone I am buying 15 new records, including efforts from Okkervil River, Local Natives, The Head and the Heart, Devin Townsend, Wilco, Teenage Fanclub, Wovenhand and the one I am anticipating above all the others, the Dear Hunter’s Act V. Still to come are Marillion, Bon Iver, the Pixies, Dawes, the list goes on. September is going to be amazing, and if I can keep up, I’ll be very surprised. Stay tuned to see how I do.

I’ll probably give Act V some time to settle in, so next week, a few of the new releases listed above. Be here. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.

See you in line Tuesday morning.