Paper Route is in an interesting place. After releasing a smattering of brilliant EPs1 that introduced their novel, beautifully melodic take on electronica, Paper Route released Absence, their début full-length in 2009. The album was well received, both critically and commercially, and while I agree that it is a strong album,2 it also seemed to present a movement away from those heavily melodic EPs towards a more traditional (read: dancy) electronic sound. For the most part, their newest release, 2012’s The Peace of Wild Things, continues where Absence left off. There are still the compositionally savvy underpinnings that made Paper Route a critical darling in the first place, but now the band has leaned pretty heavily on the traditions of mainstream pop. It would be foolish to lump The Peace of Wild Things together with the work of Taylor Swift or Katy Perry, but at the same time, it’s clear that Paper Route has noted the successes of those artists and considered what could be gleaned and applied to their own work. Paper Route is certainly not the first ‘indie’ group that has cribbed bits and pieces from their more commercially successful brethren; so what makes Paper Route’s case interesting? Let’s take a look.
Prior to the release of his landmark album New Sacred Cow in 2003, Kenna had been anointed as ‘the next big thing‘ by a pretty wide range of industry types (if you follow that link you’ll find that even Fred Durst, of all people, was all in with Kenna). The feeling was that Kenna presented something of a musical missing link. His material (written in conjunction with the now-recognized-as-brilliant Chad Hugo) seemed to bridge the gap between underground artistically-oriented rock and mainstream bubblegum pop. And, in many ways, that’s an accurate description. But while the underground community embraced Kenna, the mainstream never did. As Malcolm Gladwell brilliantly describes it in ‘Kenna’s Dilemma’ (from his 2005 book Blink), the problem was that people who knew music could tell how important Kenna’s music could have (should have?) been – the indie crowd was on board – but the masses? The ones to whom Kenna was supposed to deliver pop music that had artistic integrity? They didn’t really care. Kenna’s single ‘Freetime’ had some modest success, and that was pretty much it. Kenna flamed out. He disappeared from the public eye.3
With The Peace of Wild Things, Paper Route is clearly trying to move into that bridging territory between the underground and the mainstream. The album contains many of the elements that made Paper Route so beloved to a small crowd, but it also contains many elements that seem as though they would be appealing to a larger one. Given the electronic bent of both The Peace of Wild Things and Kenna’s New Sacred Cow, I can’t help but wonder – in light of ‘Kenna’s Dilemma’ – how Paper Route’s foray into the mainstream will fare. Their current single, ‘You and I,’ is having some moderate success on fringe radio stations, so it seems as good a place as any to begin an inspection of The Peace of Wild Things.
If there is to be a hit single on this album, it seems as though ‘You and I’ is the most likely candidate. Its verses are driven by the powerful vocals of singer J.T. Daly, and they seem custom crafted to appeal to the one demographic that still buys records (this critic notwithstanding): adolescents. Lyrics like, “I’m shooting arrows and I wear your pin,” make bold reference to the all-consuming media giant The Hunger Games and, with unofficial music videos for the song featuring footage from that film, it is clear that these references have not gone unnoticed. It will be interesting to see if ‘You and I’ is picked up for any type of cross-promotional activity with the movie series’ next instalment. Lyrics aside, the instrumentation is compelling and it aids in presenting a chorus melody that is catchy, in part because of its nearly-one-note simplicity (a method which worked out well enough for The Killers’ ‘Mr. Bright Eyes’). ‘You and I’, though, is not the only single-material The Peace of Wild Things. Other tracks on the album, like ‘Two Hearts,’ the 2011-released single ‘Better Life,’ and even ‘Sugar’ (which begins as a borderline-cheesy ballad before growing into elegant and dramatic swells) are all strong songs in their own rights that seem radio-friendly enough to be hit candidates.
There are a few tracks on The Peace of Wild Things, however, that seem less interested in being sandwiched between Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber on Top 40 countdowns. ‘Tamed’ is a two minute long piano-based duet whose slow pace and extreme melancholy almost seem somewhat out of place on this record. With its haunting melody and the guest vocals of Cacie Dalager (lead singer of Now, Now) it is a short, and very dark, study in contrast: the sombre refrain? “Nothing can hold you back.” Strong a song as it is, ‘Tamed’ almost requires being listened to out of context to fully appreciate it. Meanwhile, ‘Love Letters’ and ‘Letting You Let Go’ fall in line with a large portion of the material on Absence: they are catchy songs with interesting arrangements that offer a wide array of tones, rhythms, and melodic constructions. Additionally, the album as a whole, and these tracks in particular, are very atmospheric: the rolling drumbeat in ‘Love Letters’ is self-referential to the song’s mentions of “the midwest thunder” while the chorus of ‘Letting You Let Go’ arrives with a resounding wall of sound. With all of their intricacies these songs may please the careful listener but are likely not quite poppy enough to sustain significant airplay.4
Even with a general air of ambition, there are a few tracks on The Peace of Wild Things that keep the album from ascending to a higher stratosphere – most of which are, somewhat oddly, clustered at the album’s end. The aforementioned ‘Sugar,’ with all it’s balladry, is somewhat clichéd at first,5 and though it does evolve towards a satisfying conclusion, it is a song that is built upon predictability. The result is that it comes across as a bit boring. The final three tracks on the record also err on the side of the disinteresting and misplaced. Album closer, ‘Calm My Soul,’ can be described in almost exactly the same way as I have described ‘Sugar;’ penultimate track ‘Rabbit Holes’ is driven by a mildly obnoxious high-pitched vocal/synth line that reminds me of the shrill centerpoint of ‘Empty House’ (from 2008’s Are We All Forgotten EP); and ‘Tamed,’ as mentioned before, is a decent song, but it doesn’t appear to fit on this album because it slows down too dramatically.
The song that perhaps warrants the most discussion of any on The Peace of Wild Things, is its fourth track, ‘Glass Heart Hymn.’ Driven by pulsing bass and a rigid synth line, the song’s gritty intro makes way for an amazing melodic line that functions all the better because of its sonic isolation. A first iteration of the song’s chorus teases the listener with a glimpse of the song’s full sound before making way for a bare and powerful second verse that offers up what might be Paper Route’s strangest lyrics to date: “Cain was angry and he moved in a blood red fury. Now one brother’s dead and one brother’s born. There’s a ghost in the mirror. I’m afraid more than ever. My feet have led me straight into my grave…Oh Lord, have you walked away from me?” These are the darkest lyrics we’ve yet seen from Paper Route, and they provide more than just a novel take on an old Biblical story; they provide a reminder that Paper Route has never been afraid to venture into new and intriguing lyrical territory6 – not something you would expect from a pop-electronica outfit. Even though they are very different songs from very different artists, the vaguely industrial growth and development of ‘Glass Heart Hymn’ immediately brings to mind the throbbing programming of The Receiving End of Sirens’ ‘Swallow People Whole.’ This is a good thing.
For all its confusion, The Peace of Wild Things offers some fantastic pop songs that beg to be sung along to, while also providing some deeper material for music nerds to dig into.7 Though this album does not match the heights of Paper Route’s early EPs, it is still a solid album and a valuable entry into a programmed/electronica genre which seems to be growing larger all the time. Paper Route are, and have always been, artists worth hearing, and while history has shown that people like myself – music critics sitting in front of speakers and glowing monitors – have little sway on the record buying public, I’m curious to see how their circumstances evolve. Kenna may have stumbled, but maybe Paper Route will be the next big thing.
1. Namely Paper Route (2006) and Are We All Forgotten (2008).
2. ‘Wish’, ‘Good Intentions’, and ‘Last Time’ deserve special mention as truly excellent songs.
3. Kenna is still out there. In 2007 he released his second full length, Make Sure They See My Face, and he has released a handful of tracks since. His third full length album, Songs for Flight, is tentatively scheduled for release in 2013.
4. Because critics are – by nature – idiots, it may very well be that these are the record’s most successful songs.
5. The first half of ‘Sugar’ also begs the question of why Daly so frequently goes to his falsetto when his full voice is so rich and satisfying.
6. I’ve quite enjoyed Paper Route’s lyrics over the years. Songs like ‘Second Chances, ‘Kill Me’, and ‘Are We All Forgotten’ are among the many Paper Route songs that have offered up excellent lyrical crafting.
7. Given its cover art, I feel safe in stating that the album’s title is taken from this excellent poem of the same name.
This post originally appeared at Type In Stereo.