Jim Putnam’s ragged band of road warriors has faced a fair share of peaks and valleys these past few years. Radar Bros. have become a revolving door of traveling wilburys working at a feverish pace to perfect Putnam’s soulful vision of rock and pop into an album’s worth of unforgettable melodies. In the face of drastic lineup change, it’s a wonder The Illustrated Garden has found its way into the world. While the quiet successes of And the Surrounding Mountains and The Fallen Leaf Pages stand as testaments to the simple brilliance of the Radar Bros. ethos, the endless roster changes have threatened the pop aesthetic Putnam has etched in the 17 years of Radar Bros.’s existence.
If such a threat were imminent, it does not show itself throughout The Illustrated Garden — and sadly, that’s the album’s biggest disappointment. For as long as the band has called Merge their home, they have produced a steady stream of consistently dark songwriting that bridges the optimism of 60s pop with the skepticism of 90s rock. Although The Illustrated Garden proudly carries the torch once more, it articulates the flaw in Jim Putnam’s blueprint: a lack of change.
The adage “The more things change, the more they stay the same” is all one needs to reference before delving into the shallows of The Illustrated Garden. Despite fantastically addictive gems “Quarry” and album opener “Dear Headlights,” the album sags under its limited scope. If there was ever a time to throw a few wrenches into the cogs, this album would’ve proven the perfect opportunity. Unfortunately, Putnam has recruited a cast of characters who are clones of the past, and no matter how comforting this batch of songs may be for longtime admirers, one can’t help but feel there’s an empty space where creativity and spontaneity would snuggly fit.
The positivity found within the first half of The Illustrated Garden slowly withers during the album’s final songs, due to the general ennui brought on by the unchanging design. I’m positive there will always be a handful of cleverly wry and catchy tunes found on future Radar Bros. albums, but the days of wine, women, and song that were encapsulated in earlier Radar Bros. albums have become terribly predictable. Putnam doesn’t seem to be striving for something new, and if a new lineup isn’t shaking up the formula, it’s likely that the music community shouldn’t expect something new either.