hoya113/5 stars

An artist’s second album is arguably his most important. It offers a fork in the road, an opportunity to expand artistic horizons or burrow deeper into a niche. This is especially true if they enjoy the out-of-the-blue success Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros did with their debut album, Up From Below. On their second album, Here, which was released this week, the California band aims to simultaneously build on the sound that made them famous while exploring new genres, but the end result is more monotonous than evolutional.

Album opener “Man on Fire” is full of the heartfelt intimacy that’s become the norm in indie music, with warm harmonies and honest lyrics that focus more on telling a story than dynamic flow. Lead singer Alex Ebert echoes the sounds of Guthrie or Dylan: the world-weary wanderer, guitar in hand, inclined more toward homage than senseless imitation. Then comes the sudden, blink-and-miss-it didgeridoo solo that requires multiple listens. Aboriginal instrumentation aside, this is about as textbook as indie folk gets these days.

On the heels of the lonesomeness of “Man on Fire” comes “That’s What’s Up,” which has already been called the follow-up to Up From Below’s smash hit “Home.” With the same feel-good duet between Ebert and Jade Castrinos, “That’s What’s Up” is sure to be the most commercially successful song of the album, the one that starts popping up in car advertisements within a week of its release.

Like Up From Below, which was inspired by a book about a desert messiah, Here features a fair amount of conflicted religious imagery. “I Don’t Wanna Pray” wrestles with contradictory ideas of a loving and hateful god, all behind the facade of the band’s signature jangle and playful lyricism. The song is filled with the bluegrass stomp and back-and-forth that harkens back to the field holler of their successful debut.

From there, the album sputters. The overly soft, choral “Mayla” grows tiresome quickly, and “Dear Believer” uses an almost identical trumpet line as in “Home.” On their own, these are minor details to be sure, but strung together it seems as if Edward Sharpe hit a creative wall and, instead of working around it, plowed right through. The record bottoms out with “One Love to Another,” which borders on unbearable with its cliche reggae horns and plodding beat — not to mention its trite title. “Fiya Wata,” which heavily features Castrinos’ endearing voice, provides a bluesy redemption but proves to be a classic case of too little, too late.

Some albums end with a bang, aiming to ring in the listeners’ ears for days to come. Here is not one of those albums. “All Wash Out” closes the record with Ebert’s vulnerable falsetto, lilting through yet another plea for absolution. In a genre where ‘safe’ has become one of the most feared words in a critic’s vocabulary, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros aim to challenge ideals of artistic stagnation by staying true to the essential sound that made them so successful. Unfortunately, Here sounds more like a repeat of their debut than an exploration of identity.

 

Song to Download: “Man on Fire”

Song to Skip: “Mayla”

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