Album Rating: 96.666%
First off, you should never judge a book by its cover. Unless that cover is for Portugal. The Man’s upcoming album, The Satanic Satanist (See the artwork below if you don’t believe me).
The band’s fourth proper LP drops on July 21, and boy oh boy is it a doozie. Its eleven tracks play like a collection of distilled moments of clarity for a band who continue to evolve and perfect and experiment with their sound. Well, after several hearty listens, I have to say I hope this album becomes not just another mile marker along their musical journey, but rather a beacon off shore, a light source as they sail ahead into the deeper, darker waters of notoriety. Because, if my suspicions are correct about the eminent reception of this album, they will need that beacon in the same way Modest Mouse needed it after Moon & Antarctica. (At this point, however, Modest Mouse need a life-boat to get back on board, but I digress.)
So what does The Satanic Satanist sound like, you ask? Well, if you have followed Portugal. The Man’s previous albums, starting with Waiter: “You Vultures!”, you will have seen an evolution from post-emo spazz rock to more of an art-folk indie vibe (is that even a vibe?). This album, however, is something different entirely. It’s actually deceptively hard to define, but if you will indulge an analogy for a moment: Imagine The Pixies calling up 311 (don’t ask) and inviting them over to Frank Black’s manse to throw a Sly and the Family Stone appreciation party. But half-way through the gala, evil cousins Ween crash in and send the whole night flying off course. And yet, somehow, impossibly, it all works, like a good magic trick.
There are hints of Yeasayer here, though not in a direct way; I think it has something to do with the fluctuating falsettos and experimental nature of both bands. There is also a spacey, pulpy, Jack Vance sci-fi undertone to several of the songs, but I’ll get to that later. You could do worse than to throw Phoenix into the mix as a point of loose comparison as well, for its laser-precise production and sheer pop appeal.
Reputed producer Paul Q. Kolderie, who has produced / mixed / engineered for such bands as Radiohead, Pixies, Uncle Tupelo, Lemonheads and Dinosaur Jr., produced The Satanic Satanist, which, when you listen to the fluidity and refinement of each track, I’d say it shows. It all flows so smoothly; the songs wash over you like the tide, slipping into your subconscious before you ever know what hit you. But by then, it’s far too late.
No song is too long (unlike this review), and if there is a guitar solo, it’s sixteen-bars, maximum. In fact, a few of the tracks are probably too short, based solely on the fact that I wanted more! Working, for the most part, within the confines of straight-ahead verse/chorus/verse structures along with the predictable refrains, bridges, reprises, and breakdowns of pop albums near and far, I found myself wondering how this album continued to surprise me turn after turn.
The lead vocals courtesy frontman John Gourley transform tightly wound, simple productions into all-out anthems. Crooning falsetto melds into quasi-rapping only to be proceded by the ooh’s and ahh’s we’ve come to know and love within the indie über-genre. He’s no Josh Groban, but I’ll take Gourley’s earnest brand of vocal delivery over the former any day of the week.
On the album opener, “People Say,” a very Ween a la “Your Party,” bass line kicks things off, until the chorus steals the show, reminding us why we loved bands like Blur and Oasis once upon a time. “What a lovely day, yeah we won the war / May have lost a million men but we’ve got a million more.” Look for your local college radio stations (XMU if you listen to satellite like I do) to play the hell out of this song (pun intended). This track reeks of song of the year potential.
The very next track, “Work All Day,” defies you not to bob your head along to its chain-gang style beat. It’s the proverbial summer bounce track, pivoting off a sick break beat and an infectious sing-in-the-shower chorus. I put it up there next to Grizzly Bear’s “Two Weeks,” as another easy contender for song of the year.
“The Sun,” reminds us why we wanted to love Magic Numbers when they first came out, but just didn’t have it in us. This is how you do it, fellas. It’s not about indulgent vocals or over-the-top production. Instead, “The Sun,” pulls it off with distant hand claps, a quirky yet convincing falsetto, and a true appreciation for the R&B greats of an almost forgotten era. “If you’re talking to the moon, the moon might sing about: / the universe shouting out: ‘I don’t need, I don’t need time.” Epic grooviness.
Other standout moments include the fuzzy, layered loveliness of “Do You,” in all of its Pixies-circa-“Where Is My Mind?” wonder; the ’64 Impala flavored badassedness of “Guns and Dogs;” and the soaring, angelic sweep of “Lovers in Love,” a song the Rosebuds wished they would have recorded when they still had the chance.
As the album unwinds, and its final three tracks lull us into a beautiful sense of quiet (dis)comfort, and the final words of the last track usher us away (“We’ll be just fine, We’ll be just fine, I don’t believe…”), you really have no choice but to circle back and play the whole thing again from the beginning, just to see if there was anything you missed, just to take the ride again.
I later discovered the entire LP is, in fact, a concept album designed to parallel a sci-fi story (written by Gourley himself, I believe) about a man who builds a rocket, is banished by his king, then flies into space in said rocket, and crash lands back onto Earth later on (but the planet is completely void of any signs of life now). Ummm, ok… I’m not saying you will discover this hidden story on your own, but it does explain the undeniable sense of narrative structure to the song cycle.
Where other acts have failed in their attempt at manufacturing a successful concept album (ahem, Decemberists), Portugal. The Man succeed in the best way possible: each song maintains its own distinct identity, while an undercurrents of cohesion flows through their collective veins. It’s also worth noting that this is a gapless album, meaning many of the songs run together without any pause in the instrumentation. I usually loathe this cheese ball tactic (especially on hip-hop albums), but here it truly works to build a seamlessness and connective tissue from one chapter to the next.
As I reflect upon The Satanic Satanist, I realize there is nothing satanic about the album at all. Rather, it is nothing if not a sunny, groovy, summer soirée with hooks and riffs and anthems sent down from a troupe of bearded angels donning unkempt wings. Not a jam album per se (not quite), but a work no doubt destined to turn heads (concert and blog-heads alike) later this season. I guess that means I’ll be turning my head twice, sort of like I was possessed…
Album Artwork: Austin Sellers