Aside from love and possibly faith in all their many variants, no topic has suffered more perennial abuse in popular art than war. The balance between fist-pumping sloganeering and shrill protest is rarely found, and the opportunity to mine the incredibly rich human drama inherent in such a context remains unrealized in all but the greatest works of art. So it’s either audacity or overconfidence that led Sleep Station, a band with only two full-length releases in its catalog, to address this topic with a concept album.
Given such conceptual grandiosity, the piano and electric-guitar twinkle of the opening title track surprise with generally straightforward pop charm. Few signs of irony or social commentary underlie the New York City quintet’s lush vocal harmonies or conventional pop leanings. Only close listens reveal explicit references to war in more conventional songs like the breezy Beatlesque jangly pop tune “Come Back Again” and the ebullient fuzz rocker “Caroline, London 1940,” as both could pass for fairly innocuous power-pop tracks. In fact, if it wasn’t for the various threads of backwards spoken-word snippets ostensibly portraying field recordings of soldiers, machine gun samples, choking sounds, queasy synthesizers and music box sounds, one might miss the concept altogether.
After the War is neither gut-wrenching nor pointed nor even particularly timely. Here war is more of a subtext than an overt concept, as the exceptional songwriting can be enjoyed with little or no recognition of the larger aim of the project. What truly surprises, then, is not that war is treated so delicately but that the emerging tracks themselves are so outstanding in terms of conventional songcraft. Lead vocalist/guitarist Dave Debiak excels most in the hallmarks of melody, harmony and evocative verse. His best moments, whether during the swaying pop balladry of “Burden to You” or the chunky guitar hook and synth sparkle of “Silver in the Sun,” hardly break new ground but approach a lushness and melodic deftness reminiscent of Joe Pernice. As a writer, he deals largely in impressionistic shades rather than specific references, and even as he inhabits the role of dead and dying soldiers, fathers that never return from the field and husbands that left brides waiting at home, he does so without turning particularly maudlin or obvious. The overriding mood of the album is more poignant than somber, and the presence of so many downright buoyant pop melodies further blurs the underlying conceptual thread.
The major flaw in After the War is that Sleep Station never really goes for the kill, never truly strikes the bedrock under the depth of material available to them. The listener doesn’t leave the album feeling the confounding emotions that are evoked by the complexity of the subject. In as much as the most compelling representations of war in consumer art have explored the dilemma from what it feels like more than what it means, Sleep Station is successful. The story of the album is not war as much as pure pop craftsmanship.