You don’t even have to play Band of Horses’ first five albums to recognize that founder, singer and songwriter Ben Bridwell has a focused and steadfast vision for his long-running rock band.
Just look at the album covers, which all prominently feature images of beautiful natural features in calming hues of black, blue, green and points in between. Gnarled trees. Moonlit water. Starry skies. Craggy rocks. Each of these striking images is overlaid with the words “Band of Horses” in the same script typeface.
Fans of the band appreciate the consistency, no doubt. Non-fans might think, “Yeah, dudes … we get it.”
You could say the same thing, more or less, for Bridwell’s music, which twinkled with newness and wonder when Band of Horses’ debut album, Everything All the Time, came out in 2006, sounding like the midpoint between My Morning Jacket’s reverberant roots-rock and The Shins’ helium-voiced pop. Since then, the band have released four more albums—the one that’s front-loaded with anthems, the quieter one, the paint-by-numbers one—each spilling over with crunchy-pretty guitars and Bridwell’s distinctive drawl and airy vocal melodies.
Now, Band of Horses are back with their sixth full-length, Things Are Great—a title seemingly dripping with sarcasm. Across the album’s 10 tracks, we find Bridwell singing about crying at work and refusing therapy (in “Warning Signs”), panic attacks and physical harm (“Aftermath”), hard times and steep climbs (“You Are Nice to Me”), wheels falling off and picking up the pieces (“Ice Night We’re Having”). And then there’s “In Need of Repair,” which might be the best song here, thanks to its verdant verses, skyscraping chorus and what sounds like pure, uncut pandemic/isolation-related anxiety:
I’m sitting in my usual chair
Feeling the walls around me close in
I’m in a state of disrepair
And trying to make till the morning
It’s not enough
It’s not enough
Every single day, I hide from hurt
If this sounds like a devastatingly sad or worrisome album, well … it probably would be in the hands of, say, Sufjan Stevens. But 16 years after Everything All the Time revealed Bridwell’s gift for melodies that soar like they’re caught in a jet stream, Things Are Great proves he’s still got it. “Crutch” is bouncy, perfectly ragged and it delivers a heaping helping of glorious “ooh-ooh-ooh”s. “Tragedy of the Commons” shimmers and sighs like early Band of Horses, complete with a leisurely bridge that lingers like a humid South Carolina night. “Coalinga” closes the album with a couple of cool crescendos and a “whoa-oh-oh” singalong that should get the song licensed for a cruise ship commercial (assuming they can avoid the part where Bridwell calls the namesake town a “foul-ass-smelling hellhole”).
If there is a downside to consistency, it’s the danger of slipping off the slope into sleepwalking. It would be harsh to level that charge at Bridwell based on Things Are Great—this is probably the best Band of Horses album in 12 or maybe 15 years, after all—but when longtime fans listen to “Lights,” they’ll almost certainly hear echoes of “Weed Party,” a song from the band’s debut album. Such a strong resemblance is probably something to guard against. But it’s a minor quibble for now, not least because “Weed Party” is a great tune, so “Lights” is great, too. It’s like that old saying: If you’re going to rip off a band, at least rip off a good one—even better if it’s your own.
Ben Salmon is a committed night owl with an undying devotion to discovering new music. He lives in the great state of Oregon, where he hosts a killer radio show and obsesses about Kentucky basketball from afar. Ben has been writing about music for more than two decades, sometimes for websites you’ve heard of but more often for alt-weekly papers in cities across the country. Follow him on Twitter at @bcsalmon.