“A ramshackle crew has something to prove,” sings shaggy-haired, big-hearted rock master Ben Bridwell at the outset of his band’s fourth studio album. He ain’t kidding. After the sculpted, reverb-drenched expanses of the band’s previous album, 2010’s Infinite Arms, Band of Horses aimed to get back to basics—and get their hands dirty. So they nabbed producer Glyn Johns (Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, The Who) out of retirement, tracked live as a band straight to analog tape and stumbled haphazardly upon what might be their greatest collection of songs to date.
Opener “Knock Knock” establishes the Webster’s definition of “mirage rock.” It’s garage-rock intensity with sublime power-pop sweetness: “Greatness achieved / and darkness defeated,” Bridwell emotes over dirty electric guitars, “ooh-ahh” falsettos and perky handclaps. It’s a bouncy, windows-down anthem perfectly suited for an end-of-summer barbecue, with an air of cathartic pop mystery stirring under the surface. Mirage Rock is a little rougher around the edges, a little less pristine than the band’s recent stuff, cutting out the piles of overdubs and miles of reverb that kept the still-beautiful Infinite Arms from having an immediate, visceral impact. You can feel that primal, first-take energy in Bridwell’s strained harmonies on “Everything’s Gonna Be Undone” or in the pummeling, bled-together drive of the anthemic rocker “Feud.”
Since they’re working with one of rock’s most revered producers, it’s no surprise that Mirage Rock often sounds like a badass “Best of Classic Rock” compilation: The effervescent vocal harmonies on acoustic ballad “Slow Cruel Hands of Time” recall the blue-sky ‘70s-rock masters like America and Crosby, Stills & Nash; “Electric Music,” with its soulful chord changes and searing guitar solo, sounds like a lost Rolling Stones gem; the new-wave, palm-muted surge of “A Little Biblical,” calls to mind a backwoods take on The Cars.
Which isn’t to say Mirage Rock is derivative. In fact, Bridwell has never sounded more assured as a songwriter, exploring bold new ideas and penning some of his most poignant lyrics: “Dumpster World” is a bleary-eyed reflection on the world’s shitty future, moving from a soulful jazz-folk groove to menacing, grungy distortion. Meanwhile, I’m not even sure what else to say about “Shut-In Tourist” other than it’s one of the prettiest songs I’ve heard in years. It’s the kind of atmospheric ballad you’re sure Bridwell could crank out in droves on a sleep Sunday afternoon, but that doesn’t make it any less masterful. The guy is simply a master of these kind of wafting-in-on-the-breeze vocal melodies, and his vocal harmonies are so sweet, so effortlessly layered, it’s easy to miss how complex they can be, exploring the melody’s full harmonic potential. When Bridwell chirps “Morning calls us early birds / My babes and beagle still restin’ their heads,” it’s a quintessential Band of Horses moment: harnessing huge epiphanies from life’s simplest pleasures.