School of Seven Bells made quite a splash with the release of their debut album Alpinisms. A mongrel of recognizable sonic touchstones mixing equal doses of wildness, blissed out atmosphere, and pop structure, the band nailed a particular brand of dream pop which exalted deep personal reflection and self-reliance while simultaneously cultivating a sense of awe for the mysteries of perception, ritual, and behavior. The title of their new album, Disconnect From Desire, presents an intriguing concept and suggests that their intellectual treatment of self and field will continue. However, this album doesn’t work to improve on, or further the admittedly already perfect highs of Alpinisms. Instead, they take a more musically direct approach, with lyrics exploring the simplicity of emotional transparency and the problems of transience.
Lead track “Windstorm”, with its wooshing onomatopoeic hook, jingly chords, and thoughts of using one’s own body as a catalyst for cataclysm, bridges the old material with the new, and has no problem getting its point across. It’s a nice start and its momentum is maintained by a pair of muscular dance pop songs whose underlying rhythm tracks mine a retro Pet Shop Boys and New Order vibe. The drums build in intensity with breaks bubbling up here and there, but with minimal lyrics which are disappointingly vague, the tracks feel middling. The ballad “ILU” follows, sounding like a cross between Loveless (My Bloody Valentine) and something from the soundtrack to The Breakfast Club, and is one of the more memorable songs they’ve laid to tape. The simple chorus of “I want you to know that I loved you” is one of those earnest confessions that are rarely spoken, especially in past tense. Its repetition works much the same way that “Allow yourself to be relieved” did on the last album. Each notion goes deeper and means more with each repetition, working from personal experimentation toward both understanding and catharsis. Sometimes the simplest things are the most difficult to accept or own up to, but through a sheer force of will, these mantras stop being trite and start empowering. “Babelonia” follows in a jauntier mood, and in a rarity for the band, is written in the third person. While the arpeggiated vocal lines are a nice change of pace, the music is pretty middle of the road, and the lyrics don’t progress much beyond mystical psychobabble. With the exception of the pogo-ing “Bye Bye Bye”, the rest of the album plays out in slightly soggier versions of the aforementioned first half.
Listening to this album really loud on headphones really gets the blood pumping (as will listening to the live show, presumably), and allows the low hook factor to recede a bit in importance , but as a whole the album sounds washed out and one-dimensional on a home or car stereo. For a band with a reputation for interesting lyrics, here there are only glimpses of their past genius, and just exactly what they mean by disconnecting from desire is never successfully articulated. The vocals are also just a bit too unclear throughout. This all has the unfortunate effect of making their music less mysterious and more mundane. Some of the blame can also go to the slick professional mixing job, which sacrifices some of the interesting accents and transitions by burying them in the mix in favor of an overall power and sweep. Quiet closer “The Wait” gets off to a promising start, but I can’t make out what happens at the end of the song. For better or worse, this is definitely the sound of a band which spent the better part of the last two years on the road, battling imperfect sound conditions with volume.
It’s hard to dislike this album because it is capably performed and the sounds and voices work up a dreamy headspace, but it’s also difficult to be really enthusiastic about it. The wild stomps and acrobatic high-wire acts from Alpinisms have been left behind in favor of straightforward dance pop and lush balladry. Disconnect From Desire either cruises along close to the ground, darting here and there like futuristic transportation autotracking a gridline, or it completely dissipates in its own vapor trail. The results are pleasant enough to demonstrate the musicians’ talents, but mixed enough to feel like the whole project was a little rushed. The good things are still there, just in shorter supply.