In the case of House of Spirits, psych music implies problems at least as much as hallucinations. The Fresh & Onlys’ music has always sounded as if it were recorded beneath a brooding cloud, but never more than on this new full-length record. Compared to the straight and narrow jangle of 2012’s Long Slow Dance, House of Spirits feels forlorn, unwound, and rudderless, qualities that might otherwise detract from the enjoyment of such a thing; except in this case, the quality of the record is directly correlated to the tangibility of the thick fug of disconnection that envelops it.
“You know, you’re not the only one who is thirsty,” sings frontman Tim Cohen at the end of the chorus of “Candy,” a song that also finds him asking the object of his affection whether she feels the same way he does. It’s a bleak turn, her reply revealed only through the indignation that follows. House of Spirits disperses these haunted little details among the noodle-y guitars and other dilated juvenile detrita that comprises much of this, or any other, psych record. When Cohen sings about eating “a bowl full of eyes” on “Home Is Where?,” it comes off less like a gross-out image than the reenactment of a paranoid daytime vision or a phrase taken directly from a night-terror episode.
It’s unfair to surmise about the personal difficulties of any artist, even when relevant to the thesis; but in this case, Cohen himself has alluded to certain circumstances — moving to the desert, starting a family, dealing with feelings of isolation, and so forth — that inform House of Spirits. The permeating sense of exhaustion can be suffocating at times — it would be too generous not to mention that much of the album fails to live up to the concise standard of their last two albums — but nonetheless there is a purpose to House of Spirits’ slack and sullen nature.
Although the construction of these songs are as stacked as on other F&O albums, this time around, the piling up of bridges, solos, and refrains only adds to House of Spirits’ tangible claustrophobia. There are moments when light pierces the darkness, when the pace quickens and you can feel Cohen fighting to hold on to some quick-bleeding urgency. “Animal of One,” for example, begins with a pleasant, arid jangle, building to a deliberate, fatalistic gallop. The song either drives or is driven, but in either case, it’s less meek or mumbly than anything that follows. As a counterpoint, “Hummingbird” hints at propulsion with a fairly sick opening lead (one that closely resembles the lead from Long Slow Dance’s “Yes Or No”), but the song sputters and stalls out whenever the riff drops away, revealing a relatively uninspired mid-tempo basement rock song.
Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that The Fresh & Onlys’ finest moment on House of Spirits is not a downbeat AM radio pop-jaunt or an acid-damaged AOR rave-up, but something dreamier and altogether more elusive. “Bells of Paonia” is a strobing, wall-of-sound sibling to Paul McCartney’s “Mull of Kintyre,” another vaguely reverent tale of love and loss in foreign environments. Here, Cohen’s earnest schoolboy vocals are paired with dense, pummeling, and almost neurological instrumentation, evoking what, I’m not entirely sure, but it sure feels holy to me. “Bells of Paonia” is both a standout and an anomaly within the record’s tracklisting. “She’s the one that I remember,” The Fresh & Onlys harmonize to close out the chorus; unnecessary gendering aside, that lyric also happens to summarize the whole of my feelings toward House of Spirits. It’s one of the finest songs of The Fresh & Onlys catalog to date, and even if the rest of the record fails to live up to its quality, it’s a healthy reminder that even lingering existential clouds have their silver linings.