The band first rose to prominence off the gradual success of its single "Home," with its singalong chorus and feel-good message: "Let me come home/Home is wherever I'm with you." The rest of the album approached greatness, with catchy melodies sung inside big psychedelic-pop productions. But I feel the album's second half falls down its own rabbit hole; the vinyl is two discs, and I only ever listen to the first, before the band indulges its worst trippy impulses. The follow-up album, Here, the first produced by lead singer Alex Ebert, had a stripped-down, around-the-campfire sound that turned off some listeners drawn to "Home"'s slick, radio-ready sound. It features some of the band's best work: the foot-stomping "That's What's Up" was the most-listened to track on my iTunes before my computer crashed, and the haunting "Child" still gives me gooseflesh. But it also sounded like a band's psychological dismantling, necessary in order to rebuild.
That they do on their most recent album, released in July; it's self-titled, something most bands reserve for their first album, making this seem like rebirth. Though produced again by Ebert, the album sounds more like the first: big, rich and open, the E chords on album-opener "Better Days" ringing out as sonorously as "A Day in the Life"'s. But it's not the production or the melodies that have left the album unappreciated; it's the lyrics. Pitchfork criticizes them as too one-note: every song is about love, how love is good, which makes the album bad.
For starters, I think that's a simpleminded reading. The album is pro-love, sure—and not (just) romantic love, but a more Jesus-y kind of love. (Jesus-y love is anything but simple. You ever think about what it would mean to "love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you." Not just tolerate, or even forgive, but love, the way you love your family or your closest friends. Your persecutors! What!) It's about feeling sad or alone or afraid and trying to mitigate that negativity by tapping into a larger, unifying power. "Let's Get High," which you could chuckle at for its title (hippies, drugs, lol), is about love, its "Layla"-like second half asking for strength: "Help me to love them/Everyone love/Bigots and assholes." In "In the Lion," the catchiest part of the chorus is, "The world is fucked up/But I want to stay." There's even a song called "Life is Hard" that invites you to celebrate that fact! (Recalling Here's "I love my God/God made hate.")
The problem here, I think, without indulging too much in dumb stereotypes, is that Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes are sincere, what people who want to dismiss the band call "earnest." They feel a lot, and they really care about those feelings, and they want to share them with you and hear about your feelings and bring everyone together in a big, emotional, supportive group. We've all seen such demonstrations tip into ridiculousness, but the lucky among us have also seen them not, and can understand the band and especially this album as such. Anyway, it's not really the way people who live in cities and work in media (like me!) typically interact: there's more alcohol and fewer hallucinogenics. We don't try to find the strength to love our enemies; we mock them in blog posts!
In fact, there was sort of a movie about this. The first two albums provided most of the soundtrack for Crystal Fairy, which opened in New York this year. It was the Edward Sharpe-iest movie of the year, about young people trying to find drugs in Mexico, finally doing so, then taking them in the desert and having a great time. Michael Cera plays your archetypal hipster, a bravely odious performance that's snide, haughty, and contemptuous. Playing against him is Gabby Hoffman as the title character, a caricature of the hippy dippy. As I wrote in my review, "she offers villagers drawings of fairies when they demand money; she asks the counter girl in a grocery store if she has 'any fresher lettuce.'" But the movie doesn't hate her like Cera does; instead, it emerges that, despite her superficial risibility, she's a likable, good-hearted person that you'd have to be a jerk—which Cera is—to write her off wholesale. The movie works nicely as a metaphor for the band's reception. Still, that's ok; I'll just try to find the strength to love such haters.
Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter @henrycstewart