For their fourth album, Band of Horses have the experience and confidence to create something bold and reach new listeners. Solid, assured and tightly crafted, many of these songs have shaken off much of their old sparseness. This works, and it doesn’t. Fans of Band of Horses’ early albums might struggle with Mirage Rock, but newcomers will be impressed by a band that can produce such a strong collection. The delicate vocal harmonies and diversity of style are still around, and there is a lot to be said for their song-writing progression – from Sup Pop indie band to major label rockers winning Grammy nominations.
‘Knock Knock’ opens things up with a sunny vocal line, pulling off the catchy pop-rock approach fairly well. It feels like it’s missing something, maybe an atmospheric bridge to draw the listener in, and this feeling emerges on several other tracks. There is nothing specifically bad, yet the songs are not as powerful as they could be, or as they have been in the past. A couple strike out for brighter, poppier ground (think The Shins), however it is on the softer 70s-influenced songs that they excel.
On ‘Slow Cruel Hands’ the vocals, lyrical description and background organ come together into a hazy, almost psychedelic folk sound. ‘Long Vows’ is a soulful lament with steel guitar and vocals that swing up in that traditional country music way – it’s lovely. ‘Shut-In Tourist’ is also a big nod to music history: layered guitars and voices, a fuzzy solo guitar line and vivid lyrics. The influence of Grateful Dead and Crosby, Stills and Nash is obvious on Mirage Rock, as on their other albums, and the nod to old masters is done consciously and with style. The stand out track here is ‘Everything’s Gonna Be Undone’, an upbeat, Appalachian-style folk song about broken hearts that centres on a glorious vocal refrain.
Any self-respecting US rock band has to have a paean to the road, and ‘Electric Music’ is Mirage Rock’s driving rock’n’roll song, complete with the setting of Nashville, Tennessee. Elsewhere, ‘Dumpster World’ begins as a lazy shuffle before moving into heavy riffing and chorus shouts of “bust out the drums!” It’ll be amazing live, and will be rolling around lots of heads after one listen. ‘Feud’ is a more modern approach, with Ben Bridwell’s distinctive falsetto in full force over … drum beats.
‘Heartbreak 101’ closes the album by bringing together two familiar lyrical themes, relationship misery and life on the road. Much like Band of Horses’ own development, it builds from stripped guitar and fragile voice up to a flourishing finish, orchestral strings and all. It may have worked better without the additional instrumentation but, as with the rest of the album, it’s an attempt at bulking out and moving in a slightly different direction.
Words: Alice Knapp