It’s all change in the world of Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeroes. So much so in fact, that it seems that Edward Sharpe may not even exist anymore. If, indeed, he ever did.
Confused? Perhaps an explanation is in order: Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros are a 10-strong collective from Los Angeles, led (rather confusingly) by Alex Ebert who took their name from a short story he once wrote about a messiah-type figure named Edward Sharpe. They’re perhaps best known for their unashamedly slushy and romantic paean to love and happiness, Home, which featured, like so many of their songs, Ebert’s ex-girlfriend Jade Castrinos on vocals.
In 2014 though, Castrinos left the band amid some acrimony, resulting in this album, their first since her departure, to sound somewhat different. The name Edward Sharpe is even crossed out on the album cover, giving the impression that PersonA is something of a reboot for Alex Ebert and company.
It certainly sounds like a fresh start, a new beginning – the more hippy-dippy elements of the band’s back catalogue appear to have been jettisoned in favour of a more brooding, souful angle. They’re still partial to a bit of a formless jam, s the opening, seven-minute long, track Hot Coals demonstrates, but overall the sound is tighter, more focused and, at times, quite startling. PersonA is the first Magnetic Zeros album written by the band as a whole, and if Castrinos vocals are missed (and they are), it’s offset by an intriguingly dark edge to their previously sunny and hopeful gospel-tinged rock.
The aforementioned Hot Coals, for instance, is a brave choice for an opening track but it does encapsulate the band’s new sound perfectly. It’s brooding and somewhat menacing at times (with Ebert growling “get the fuck out of my sight”) with none of the little handclaps and upbeat positivity that die-hard fans of the band may be used to. That’s followed by the aptly titled Uncomfortable, in which Ebert sounds like a deadringer for Nina Simone – in fact, he sounds so much like the legendary jazz singer that you may find yourself checking the credits for any notes of samples used.
The band’s old sound hasn’t been completely done away with though – the lead single No Love Like Yours will most appeal to those hankering after a big, soppy, celebratory number like Home, and Free Stuff is a nice, light-hearted wink at many of the band’s imitators, with it’s ‘hey-ho’ chorus and slinky brass section. Lullaby, meanwhile, is a beautiful little ode to Ebert’s young daughter, even if lyrically it errs somewhat on the dark side (“if only I could protect you from me” runs one line).
At times, you yearn for the presence of a strong editor in the studio – as compelling as the rolling piano chords and improvisational vocals of Wake Up The Sun can be, interest starts to drift over its lengthy 6 minute plus running time. Some of these songs may sound better as a soundtrack to soaking up the festival sun rather than home listening and, while the new direction is overall a successful one, it’s impossible not to miss the lighter touch that Castrinos was so good at providing.
However, it’s the final track, The Ballad Of Yaya, which seems to jettison the darkness and lets the sunshine back in with a great big audio hug – if this is the song that points towards the Magnetic Zeros’ future direction, then it’s a bright one. Edward Sharpe is dead, long live Edward Sharpe.