Grief is the driver for The Electric Soft Parade’s fifth studio LP, but it’s taken 10 years to get here, since the White brothers lost their mother in 2009 after a long period of illness. It’s probably no surprise that the album has been shelved a couple of times too, for Stages is something of an ode to her, and what child wouldn’t want that to be as close to perfection (in their eyes, at least) as possible.
With Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ epic Ghosteen still very much in our minds and playlists, you could argue that another dose of depression is far from what the doctor ordered but that would be disrespectful. Not only that, Stages is largely impressive, if somewhat – in their own words – “sprawling” and like “walking through treacle”.
Roles Reversed was the first taster of the new album, and – intentionally – it gave fans an insight as to what to expect: long drawn out numbers, several of which sit around the seven minute mark and some even longer. The first release lasts ten minutes and pulls you into the grieving process through repetitive lyrics of “I loved you more than I could ever say” and “where’ve you gone?”, words that really tug at the heartstrings. An anthemic section tests the hairs on the back of your neck too, as the song follows the path of both the boys’ parents as their mother firstly nurses their father after a heart attack before ending up in his care through health problems that finally claimed her own life. It’s a fitting tribute, although it defines the entire collection in that it can feel overblown as it tackles the full grieving process, which isn’t a three minute thing at all; fade it out at seven minutes for more admirers, but in doing so lose its essence and its meaning to the brothers – a tricky balance to strike.
With the tone set, the other six songs follow suit accordingly – apart from opener Saturday, where a picture materialises of, perhaps, waiting for the call to confirm the bad news set to the kind of jazzy lounge music you can imagine Chris Rea playing to guests in his, erm, lounge. Single Never Mind builds on a piano riff and despite topping seven minutes doesn’t outstay its welcome to the casual listener – it’s not always like this – as lyrics tell “you can’t stand to hear the silence” alongside more anthemic qualities. The Bargain does, however, feel like an overdramatic slog, with the final two minutes of prog rock wig-out-ness appearing like an elastoplast stuck over a wound.
Left Behind has appeal and would have been another must-have but for its length, the guitar riff in particular looking as if it would sit comfortably in a shorter workspace. Closer Fragments suffers from over repetitiveness – the lyrics “I can’t let go” pop up 12 times – but it’s to be expected; if you want to wallow in the mire of your own grief, this could well fit the requirement perfectly. On Your Own, however, really is too long at 12 minutes, and at over a minute, the intro could even cause some drop outs before it’s fully begun. If the track had been chopped at six minutes, it may have won universal plaudits; instead, it’s tough going.
The intention of Stages isn’t to win fans, though. The Electric Soft Parade’s intention is to deal with their own grief in the best way they know and in many parts this carries over to the listener. It was never going to be a pretty or easygoing listen, but Stages holds its own compared to their previous releases. While it won’t be heralded on all fronts like Ghosteen was, it’s still a personal insight that will have its fair share of supporters.