Band Of Horses has always really been Ben Bridwell. Bearded and blue-collared, he’s the archetypal honest every-man of rock. Saddled with songwriting responsibilities, he’s been the common denominator amid personnel changes, constant touring and relocation, releasing records on his own label (albeit with major backing). His stewardship has seen a rise precipitated by the success of first LP Everything All the Time’s all-conquering The Funeral that culminated in a career-high Grammy nomination for 2010’s Infinite Arms.
Mirage Rock, however, is a very different proposition. Remarkably for a band’s fourth offering, it’s only the second that’s the product of a consistent group, the lineup unchanged from Infinite Arms. Settled, Bridwell has duly slackened the reins, adopting a relaxed, collective writing and recording process to capture a sound that’s “loose and raw at times”. Also, the record’s title doesn’t reference a real place, Bridwell calling that notion “a total piss take”. The results, sadly, are sometimes just that, but the joke doesn’t reflect well on anyone. Bridwell’s output has always had a nebulous quality, straddling the divide between standard form and idiosyncratic verve with ease; straight-ahead songs elevated and given a workaday grace. Listening to Mirage Rock it becomes abundantly clear that, shorn of his control, little of the material stands up.
Matters begin decently enough with Knock Knock, a serviceable slab of Southern rock, sputtering along on carefree falsetto and jackhammer guitars. All the Band Of Horses hallmarks are there, yet there’s no focus or heft, no urgency. The back-of-a-fag-packet lyrics tell of a “ramshackle crew with something to prove and a truckload of belief,” once a simple statement of fact, but now one that really is mirage rock. A repeated trick that’s suddenly fooling no-one.
Serviceable is the record’s watchword. As it unfolds, the band feel for something new, but mostly flounder in a Neil Young aping, graspless daze, all soft focus am fare. The close harmonies of Slow Cruel Hands, a song obsessed with the passage of time (a theme long-established in Young’s canon) and the cascading arpeggio guitar of Shut-In Tourist are both pretty, as is the lachrymose Roy Rogers-lope of Long Vows, but they don’t inspire close inspection or repeated listening, undercut by barely-there production. The atmosphere is unfussy but diffuse, as if dampened with gauze. Bridwell’s voice – normally soaring and proudly ragged, doused with reverb, is suddenly neutered and tired.
Stripping back production means the band are forced to show their songwriting hand, but they’re only holding two cards, emasculated rock and aimless jangle, and that’s a worry. Things begin splitting apart at the seams especially when, shorn of ideas, they merely combine the two: the white bread drawl of How To Live, a country ramble bookended by faster sections, while shoehorning a rock section in Dumpster World is almost risible, making it jarringly hackneyed. Electric Music is tiresome, hamstrung by a feckless lyric, and the damage is done by the time the genuinely heady Feud rolls around – one of the few successes – yet its incendiary “I want you to fail!” rings ironically.
Band Of Horses have always been more than the sum of their parts, so the decision to finally explore a settled band dynamic made a lot of sense. Yet it’s too comfortable, old ideas diluted to homeopathic proportions, results half-hearted and strangely spiritless, songs feeling overly long. Where Bridwell’s restless wandering once gave him the latitude to absorb all manner of Americana, channelling it in subtly impressive three-minute doses, settled surroundings make matters feel staid, lacking any sort of visceral thrill that peppers the band’s back catalogue. If he thrives on change and control, it’s time for another upheaval.