The Texas-based folk-rock ensemble rediscover their place in the world while tapping into long-held strengths
It’s been nine years since Midlake last released an album, 2013’s Antiphon, and it’s fair to say a lot in the world has changed since then. Yet in some ways, at least on the surface, the opposite could be said for the Texas-based folk-rock outfit. The release of their fifth album, For The Sake Of Bethel Woods, feels a ‘business as usual’ style return, which sees them tap back into the many strengths they have built up since releasing their debut back in 2004.
The father of the band’s keyboardist/flautist Jesse Chandler assumes a key role in the story behind the creation of the album and how the band ended up getting back together after a period away. Chandler had a dream in which his father Dave appeared, urging him to make efforts to reform the band. This had a galvanising effect of sorts, especially given how it was something certain members of the band had already tentatively started to ponder on a personal level. That wasn’t his only influence on the album, however. His face appears on the album cover, an image taken of him as a 16-year-old watching John Sebastian’s set at the infamous Woodstock festival back in 1969, and this snapshot from history tied in with some broader themes that the band wanted to explore on the album, namely our relationship with the past and how it informs the present and future.
For The Sake Of Bethel Woods serves as a reminder of the reasons why Midlake have been held in such high regard over the years, and is arguably their strongest set of songs since their 2006 classic The Trials Of Van Occupanther. The title track goes some way to confirming this on its own, all expertly executed transitions and swift musical propulsion. Exile proceeds in similarly confident style, gently reverberating guitars, driven percussion and drifting woodwind combining to alleviating effect. Feast Of Carrion is arguably the clearest link back to some of their more celebrated moments, all soft edges and emotional channelling. The lyrics of lead single Meanwhile address Chandler’s previously described experience directly: “Then he came to me in a dream, did it so vividly, offering just one plea.”
Noble is perhaps the most poignant track on the album, a song written about and named after drummer McKenzie Smith’s young son, who was born with a rare brain disorder. It’s as tender and heartfelt a moment as might be expected, understandably sad and reflective and indicative of how they can address difficult subjects with humanity. Gone strikes a similar tone, singer Eric Pulido singing of how “for years what would bind us is gone”. It’s also notable for musical reasons also, with low-lying synths and warped electronics featuring prominently, mirroring some of the sounds found on Chandler’s debut solo album under the Pneumatic Tubes name (appropriately released on the Ghost Box label).
Further experimentation comes on Glistening which projects a sort of ambient country vibe, representing the biggest sense of departure on the album. The End is much closer to their trademark sound, all unfurling melody and cascading energy. It also recalls John Grant, who the band backed memorably on his Queen Of Denmark album. Closing track Of Desire offers a moving finale, Pulido singing of how “make believe was never so easy”, pinpointing the escapism and quiet sense of wonder evoked by their music.
For The Sake Of Bethel Woods is one of those occasions where the old adage of ‘absence making the heart grow fonder’ very much applies. It might have been largely inspired by events that took place in the past but this is a forward-looking album by a band that has rediscovered their place in the world.