Bishop Allen has always been good at grabbing one’s attention. When the Brooklyn outfit came on the scene in 2003 with its debut, Charm School, (and later with the 12-EP project in 2006), it seemed to have already mastered the art of lo-fi indie pop.
Now, after several releases and a move to Kingston, N.Y., the band returns with its fourth proper full-length, Lights Out, which finds it doing what it does best: crafting tightly knit indie pop that clings to you without loosening its grip. Lights Out is packed with songs that flutter with sunny synths, bright-eyed electric guitars, head-bobbing drumbeats and lilting vocal harmonies that swoon and swell into glimmering mini-anthems. The band has made a career out crafting upbeat, inviting music, and Lights Out is the next chapter in the band’s trajectory of summer-soaked indie rock, bolstering the band somewhere between early Vampire Weekend, Ra Ra Riot and Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin.
But there’s one subtle difference on Lights Out when compared to previous Bishop Allen releases: the band sounds grown up. The allure of a fresh-faced Charm School-era Bishop Allen is still present (to an extent), but Lights Out feels immediately defter, more tempered. The band sounds tighter, cleaner, more intent in direction and execution—they sound older and wiser.
Interestingly, though, this development doesn’t always extend to the album’s sunny sound, which feels more like a refined skill set than perpetual musical growth; rather, Bishop Allen’s true development is revealed when it shows its battle scars in the album’s distraught lyrical content. For instance, the bright chorus on “Good Talks” laments things gone awry (“If you want to tell me / Where it all went wrong / I already know”); “Give It Back” asks, “How long till the next defeat?”; the upbeat “Black Hole” observes that there’s “No sun, no stars, only emptiness above” before succumbing to a loveless existence. The effect is a bizarre juxtaposition that pairs wide-smiling music with sad-eyed themes—and it displays a true and unique maturation for the band.
However, that maturation in songwriting and sonic consistency doesn’t come without a price. For all of that zeroed-in focus and attention to detail, what gets lost is Bishop Allen’s ingrained quirkiness—those loveable idiosyncrasies that cemented the band’s sound when it was first finding its footing. It’s there if you dig for it, but even when you unearth it, it falls through your fingers. What once felt like a natural extension of Bishop Allen now feels something foreign. Lights Out seems less willing to take the chances that made the band’s previous works so fun.
Still, Lights Out brims with self-assuredness. The quirks may be gone, but the gift for crafting infectious indie pop isn’t—a notion that is made all the more interesting because of musical content juxtaposing itself with the lyrical themes. It’s an album constructed around the idea that you can’t have the good without having the bad. And while Lights Out is by no means flawless, its success lies in its ability to not only capture that sentiment but to make it so natural and accessible. Strife has never looked brighter.