Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Record Review: Constantines

Kensington Heights
NQL Rating: Album of the Year So Far

Considering the natural progression of things, it's inevitable that youth's cynicism is washed away and overtaken by larger, less definable truths and struggles such as love, friendship, getting old, and realizing that you're going to die. The trick is to figure out how to conquer these realities.

Kensington Heights, the fourth album from the Constantines, reveals a change in aesthetic but not necessarily approach. Constantines' first albums had more in common sonically with their post-rock and post-hardcore forebears (Slint, Fugazi, Jawbox)--jittery, edgy, at times unnerving. Kensington Heights, on the other hand, is post-influence: a polished and affable dose of grown-up perspective, with the urgency, stridency, and indignance of their early work tempered by restraint and mannered delicacy but not at the expense of tension or immediacy, an immediacy reflected in the album's spare production. Kensington Heights possesses an organic sound, and as such, it ebbs and flows like a great concert. This is an intimate album that, like Bry Webb's voice, sounds old, lived-in but not worn out--the Birkenstocks you've had since college and keep getting re-soled--so it makes sense to start discussing from the beginning.

"Hard Feelings" and "Million Star Hotel" are the so-so warm-ups that lead to the album's true start: the driving, brooding, all-rhythm "Trans Canada", whose stabbing synths and chugging guitars and bass evoke hurtling down a desolate highway, its darkness occasionally broken by streetlamps and "ghost horns in my head keeping time". After momentum-builder "Shower of Stones" comes the first crest, "Our Age", a song concerning the indefinable qualities of youth made clear in adulthood. Everyone who's lived anywhere near the margins can relate to this sentiment: "I was a hungry little one, / a prodigal, a rising sun / hung up on my confusion. / My age was all, all that I was." Expectations are a bastard, and being a kid can be hard.

Second in a clutch of songs that represent the album's beating heart is supreme comedown "Time Can Be Overcome". In it, the sense that Constantines understand humanity's place in the universe ("now architect, now archaeologist") is paramount; there's no more rush to get things done or said. Youth's preoccupation with running out of time or hurrying to finish and move on to the next thing is gone. The Cons ask, rhetorically, "What do you know, still living so young?" And answer, sagely: "Tomorrow's no burden". You can beat the clock if you ally with it.

The immediately re-energizing "Brother Run Them Down" follows, a "song for sensitive men" that includes one of the tenderest sentiments ever laid to tape: "Friend, to me you're an embassy in the middle of the night in a wayward nation." The song is an invitation to transcend the mundane ("too many restless years"), to reject being defined by some larger construct ("you are not your generation"), and (gasp) to have faith in mankind. Stop chasing a future that's uncatchable and be content to "go out and recognize each other from a common beginning." In this way, "Brother" is reminiscent of "Weak Become Heroes": Living as one of millions, you have no choice but to see yourself in other people and intuit that "I've known you all my life but don't know your name".

After memorable but skippable "Credit River" comes the Constantines' mission statement, the cadre of tunes that close the record. The utter positivity of "I Will Not Sing a Hateful Song" leads into the crushingly gorgeous "New King". Over right-in-your-ear vocals, acoustic strums, and pealing organs, "New King" speaks of destiny without a hint of irony, spans time and place, gender and identity, goals and reality to reveal something beautiful about failure, and the lack of fear of failure--having enough courage to "pull a fortune from a river", so to speak, and when that fails, the wherewithal to "build a bed for new beginning". (Plus, the drum fills are killer.)

In view of what's come before, final track "Do What You Can Do" scans like a benediction, and when Webb intones, "I bid you twelve lengths of peace and quiet, / and all speed away from human sorrow", you believe him. In the first verse alone, Webb recalls Robert Herrick, the Stones, and Talking Heads. And by the end, you can imagine Webb saying, "Go in peace." At its core, Kensington Heights is an astounding bit of humanism--and a welcome slab of seriousness right when we need it from a band more powerful and empowered than ever.

--Brian Herrmann

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