One thing’s immediately apparent when you listen to Better Nature‘s title track “Cradle (Better Nature)”: Silversun Pickups’ first album on their own label New Machine Records marks a decidedly different direction for the band. It’s much bigger and louder than previous efforts, and significantly more produced. While the band has collaborated with producer Jacknife Lee before on 2012’s Neck Of The Woods, that album still felt very much like the SSPU of old, despite its excursions into a more electronic territory: its soul was still indie, alternative and modest despite some grandiose guitar riffs and Brian Aubert’s expressive vocals. On Better Nature that’s changed.
It’s quite a surprise: first single “Nightlight” was very much in line with what the band’s done on the albums Carnavas and Swoon. It relied very much on Nikki Monninger’s strong bass-playing, offset with Auberts up-front singing and a screaming guitar, Christopher Guanlao’s hard-hitting drums and Joe Lester’s atmospheric sounds. Neat were the additions of rhythmic humming and the various layers on offer on the song. In the context of the album though, the track stands apart as the odd one out. Follow-up single “Circadium Rhythm (Last Dance)” acts as a bridge between “Nightlight” and the rest of the tracks on the album, its character much poppier than what the SSPU usually deliver. A danceable beat, combined with pop-rock guitar strumming and a catchy synth hook form the basis of the track, while its chorus and bridge display Silversun Pickups’ knack for surprises. The result is a fun song, but it’s also light on staying power. And unfortunately, that goes for most of the record’s tracks.
It seems as if Better Nature is SSPU’s attempt to try their hand at stadium rock, which leads to songs that are appealing when you first hear them because they overwhelm you and are catchy enough. Most of them don’t quite stand up to repeated listenings. The reason why varies. “Cradle (Better Nature)” and “Connection” for example are songs that are far too similar, and since they’re placed next to each other on the album, the urge to skip one of the two becomes hard to resist. “Latchkey Kids”, “Pins And Needles” and “The Wild Kind” then are too mundane and conventional to really leave a mark, despite the first song’s reliance on a Pixies-esque guitar sound, imitating Joey Santiago’s surf-like playing style. These efforts also lack the bite and vigor that’s usually present on SSPU tracks, both due to their lyrics and composition. What’s far and away the album’s biggest flaw is Jacknife Lee’s production, though; the songs are all so overproduced that it’s as if your listening to them through a veil of fuzzy reverberation.
Why these songs also disappoint is because there are three tracks on the album that have a much different sound and really showcase what Silversun Pickups can do if they are on their game. And what Lee can bring to their tracks when his production style actually fits. These songs tower above the other offerings, and make you wonder why there’s such a gap in quality and style. “Friendly Fires” layers Aubert’s strong vocals on top of a droning synth pulse, industrial beats and a dreamy guitar riff that goes surprisingly well with the aforementioned, leading to anthemic choruses and a soothing bridge. “Tapedeck” on the other hand plays with atypical rhythmic structures, while Aubert puts venom in his voice and spits out his lyrics with verve while the song shifts gears various times throughout its running time. It’s wonderfully imaginative stuff. As is “Ragamuffin”, which is not only Better Nature‘s best track, but one of the best songs the band has ever created: beautiful lyrics are accompanied by emotional vocals, haunting synths and pounding drums throughout a perfect buildup that leads to a quiet and subdued bridge before the song climaxes in its final stages. It’s goosebumps-inducing and makes you hope that this is the direction the band is headed in next.
Better Nature is too over-produced for its own good, and its sound often too bombastic. It’s an example of how bigger isn’t necessarily better. But whenever the album shines, it shines bright. 6/10