The record, anchored by the band’s newfound focus on pretty pop melody, is, without a doubt, a lesson in craftsmanship. Songs have a million different parts that pit Long’s flurry of fingerpicks and strums against Logan Kroeber's rapid-fire drumming in a showdown of technical awesomeness. The complexity of the compositions—fused together by the subtle ringing of newbie Keaton Snyder’s amped-up vibraphone—can’t be overstated. But as it turns out, Long may have been onto something last September. Writing careful, well-planned songs ultimately disservices them, forcing the visceral, frantic energy that first got all the bloggers and critics talking about them out of the equation. They end up with a technically overwhelming album that, somewhat strangely, manages to sound underwhelming.
Perhaps this is because their first two albums were testaments to the physicality of music. By hitching folksy fingerpicking with Kroeber’s resonating, skewed rhythms, they were able to hit a primordial chord that tapped into something instinctual, heaping all sorts of Animal Collective comparisons and “freak-folk” labels on the band. Last year’s much-loved Visiter took risks. Things like its choppy variation in length of songs—one clocked in at 1:30, the next would be over six minutes—helped make it feel light in all the right places and heavy in others, gave it highs and lows, and made for a wholly engaging listen. What were once savage, engulfing drums are often now just keeping time on Time to Die—loudly, but still, not the same. Bluesy streaks still creep up here and there, but nothing makes you feel like you're on the back porch with a slobbering dog by your side. Long's sun-baked tenor is in tiptop shape, but nearly gone are his punctuating screams and messed-up bird calls.
With a lot of the idiosyncrasies already smoothed out, Phil Ek’s (Built to Spill, the Shins, Fleet Foxes) polished production doesn’t do much to help retain any vigor, a notion the band hinted at during an interview with The L this summer. With him making sure everything is even and temperate, it all sounds a little, well, even and temperate. There’s no banging on a trashcan. The songs don’t swallow you up. You can’t feel them in your bones. And that’s the dirty little secret when it comes to making a record: It's not just the songs that make it good or bad. Track by track, Time to Die may be most well thought-out record of their career, but when heard in one solid block, a lot of it is forgettable. Too calculated and restricting for it to leave a lasting impression.