The Broken West Now or Heaven

[Merge; 2008]

Styles: power pop, new wave, indie rock
Others: Nada Surf, The Elected, The Killers

The Broken West’s debut, I Can’t Go On, I’ll Go On, was a positively sugar-sweet, head-bobbingly likable blend of classic rock winks, power-pop grins, and just enough rustic alt-country wits to earn them a bunch of ‘not-impressed’ reviews from the rock press. With the arrival of Now or Heaven, their sophomore album, it appears the boys took those critical jabs to heart. The record is chock-full of ‘look at how we’ve grown’ moves and dance-happy new wave rhythms cruising underneath demure, detached vocals. The synths are synth-ier, the guitars are U2-ier, and the general vibe is a lot more serious.

Which I think is a bummer, because while I might have been in the minority, I was pretty pleased with the first album. Power-pop is a tricky little thing. Doing it right requires some pretty solid songwriting chops and the delicate sense to know when to stick to tradition and when to try something new. I Can’t Go On, I’ll Go On may have lacked originality, but it was heartfelt, and even when the songs buckled under lyrical laziness, their underdog rock ’n’ roll spirit kept them upright.

Opener “Gwen, Now and Then” percolates over a double-time drum machine, stating the albums theme, “Searching for a diamond in a bag of ice.” The tune is taut and restrained, but without any dramatic tension, it verges on lifelessness. “Auctioneer” follows, and its breathy, barely distorted vocals recall Broken Social Scene, right down to the female background vocals on the break. It also fails to truly travel anywhere, the aural equivalent of a blank stare. That these two tracks are some of the most exciting tracks on the album is telling.

“Perfect Games” is the only song that effectively reminds me what I liked about their debut, its bouncy melody and strident back-beat momentarily distracting me from lyrics like “I get along/ Kicking myself in the lightning.” But the band follows it up with “House of Lies,” a track reminiscent of INXS. Not a good thing. At least it sounds like the band is excited. The fervor doesn’t last. After this, it's back to nondescript, mid-tempo rock, save the ridiculously spray-can cheese synth pop of “Got It Bad,” which may be the most tuneless thing these guys have put to tape yet. “Embassy Row” finishes the set out, and its drums and Chris Martin-style arena vocals cement its striking resemblance to that last Coldplay record.

Maybe Now or Heaven isn’t an awful record, but it’s certainly one that strips away everything I felt was compelling about the band to begin with. I enjoyed The Broken West’s wide-eyed stare, which now seems entirely directed at their navels. Simply put, The Broken West used to remind me of The Gin Blossoms, in all the best ways, and Now or Heaven reminds me of The Killers in all the worst. How exactly you take that probably depends on exactly how your ‘bad taste’ works and exactly how comfortable you are with it.

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