Detail of "Find the Murder Weapon" by Elwood H. Smith from Push Pin Graphic's All New Crime Favorites, 1980
The Swedish rock group the Soundtrack of Our Lives can't really be accused of being prolific. Their new album Communion is their first release since 2005's Origin Vol. 1, and it's only their third release since 2001. What happened to Origin Vol. 2? Although the band says it may still be released at some point, I'm guessing that some or all of it has been rolled into Communion. I think this is a good guess because Communion is a two CD, 24-song set clocking in at almost two hours of music. No wonder it took them four years to make. Now I'm a sucker for bloated double albums, even if they have a high filler-to-good-stuff ratio. At worst, it's an opportunity to spend hours discussing how to pare it back to a great single album. What would our Swedish friends TSoOL do with this format? They turn in a huge concept epic that sounds like the work of a savant who has read a book on the classic albums of 60s rock but has only ever heard one record - The Joshua Tree. That's not a criticism per se - my take on TSoOL has always been that they love pairing '60s psych and hard rock with modern alt-rock grandiosity.
The thing about Communion is that it doesn't have a lot of filler songs. Some of the songs have filler in them, which creates the same feeling of bloat, but it's an album that gets better and better as it goes on. The opener of disc 1, "Babel On", starts promisingly with a spacey intro that is suddenly infused with huge tribal drumming, but once the song gets going it's just sort of there. It runs out of ideas at the four-minute mark, and then goes on for two and a half more minutes. Three of the next four tracks have a similar problem - they all should have been trimmed back to about four minutes in length. However, the last of these bloated rockers, "Ra 88", actually has a lot going for it and points to better things to come. The remaining seven songs of the first disc are remarkably solid and steadily improve in quality as they go, starting with the Stones-y "Thrill Me" and an excellent epic cover of Nick Drake's "Fly" (they make it their own so well that I didn't even recognize it on first listen) and building up to a great final one-two with "Just a Brother" and "Distorted Child".
This good trend continues on the second disc of Communion, which might be my choice for the best thing TSoOL has ever released. If the first disc is all Who-Stones bombast, the second disc is the more balanced Kinks-Byrds pop songs. With the exception of a shrug-inducing instrumental in the middle, the second disc is uniformly excellent, beginning with the slow-burning psych of "Everything Beautiful Must Die" and ending with the swaying campfire sing-along of "The Passover". In between, you have the horn-inflected "Fan Who Wasn't There", the perfectly Kinksian "Flipside", and the power-pop "Utopia". Communion is supposed to be a concept record of some kind - about the state of the world maybe? - so it makes sense that it starts with songs that are bloated and unwelcoming and ends with an optimistic, sunny rebirth.
The song "Utopia" is fairly representative of what TSoOL is all about on Communion, updating the British Invasion bands love of token "Eastern" influences with layered guitar hooks and a great power-pop melody. The "important" lyrics are only slightly distracting from the song's better aspects ("We're livin' in a too-fast lane" indeed) and about what you'd expect from Swedes trying to communicate a heavy message in English. The big chorus is a little too big, but it's all in good fun. There's not really much buzz around Communion - I'd like to think that it's an unfairly slept-on release that will probably be one of my favorites of the year, but maybe there was some meeting where everyone decided to ignore it and I didn't get the memo.
"Utopia" by the Soundtrack of Our Lives