Coming off of what is widely – and rightly – considered to be their finest achievement, 2001’s Stay What You Are, Saves the Day was in a difficult position. How do you follow something that magnificent without seeming second rate or derivative? It’s a difficult question to answer and one that a great multitude of bands have struggled with.1 And struggle they no doubt did. But even though it was roundly criticized2 at the time, I think that Saves the Day chose a wise path: rather than attempting to mimic the sound of Stay What You Are, they decided to move in a completely different direction with their follow up, 2003’s In Reverie.
In lieu of the pure-pop leanings of its predecessor, In Reverie relied instead on a unique mixture of quirky indie-rock and a curious darkness, that strangely enough, often manifested itself as humor. Though the album was not well received by fans,3 I actually quite enjoyed it at its release and have continued to enjoy it to this day. So, with Saves the Day undertaking efforts to fund a new album, I think it’s worth taking a look at one of the more underappreciated records of the past decade.
Perhaps the most commonly cited complaint about In Reverie is the vocal delivery of singer Chris Conley, which increased in both shrillness and nasality on this record. While Conley’s rationale for this change – that he was so consistently losing his voice that he was forced to change his delivery in order to save his ability to sing – should alleviate some of the furor surrounding it, that does not appear to have been the case. But the vocal health of Saves the Day’s principle song-writer aside, I am trying to make a case for the album as it is, without excuses of any kind (no matter how pertinent they seem to be). So: Chris Conley’s voice changes; fans/the Internet are upset. Now what? How can I explain away a fault that many listeners found to be so great that it prevented them from getting all the way through the album even once? Research, of course! Upon (not much) further inspection, the most obvious – and important – question seems to have been the one least asked: in all actuality, how different is Chris Conley’s voice on In Reverie from his performance on Stay What You Are? Take a listen:
Here’s ‘Freakish‘ from Stay What You Are. And here’s ‘Wednesday the Third‘ from In Reverie. Different? Sure. Really different? Not so much.
From a strictly musical standpoint, I think we can all agree: while Conley’s delivery certainly did change, it really didn’t change all that drastically. So why all the fuss about what amounts to a relatively minor tonal change in Conley’s vocal delivery? Well, it turns out that people who are fanatical fans of something often believe that the object of their fandom can only exist in one way, and they do not take kindly to that thing being changed. Not kindly at all. The truth is that the anger directed at Conley has almost nothing to do with the objective quality of his singing techniques and everything to do with the idea of change, which abjectly terrifies people. Of course, none of this accounts for the fact that, nasally or not, Conley’s performance on In Reverie is not just strong, but also very appropriate for the album at hand. His light and airy delivery is perfect for the strange, off-kilter vibe of the entire record.4
Beyond complaints about Conley’s changed vocals, little has been said for or against In Reverie. This has pretty much been the whole discussion – which is insane, as there really is a lot going on here that’s worth talking about. The variety of excellent guitar tones on the album are an excellent place to start: ‘Anywhere With You’ opens the record with a coastal, crunching California-esque indie sound, ‘Where Are You?’ straight up rocks with distortion, and the opening of ‘Tomorrow Too Late’ floats by with a clean, smooth clarity. The first of those three distinct sounds is the most prominent on the record and ultimately its prevalence gives In Reverie a lot of the album’s unique quality, especially considering that – despite how successfully that tone is employed on this record – it’s a sound that Saves the Day had not really focused on before and has more or less abandoned since.
Past the excellent instrumental tones and production, you’ll find that In Reverie is home to some very peculiar lyrics that fall well outside the hyper-dramatic and violently morbid fare that fill the albums flanking it in Saves the Day’s catalog. Instead of singing about draining blood from crucified bodies or axe-blade moons and tar-filled mouths, In Reverie finds Conley laughing off a police-enforced strip search and comparing a woman to the morning dew and a dandelion. There are still dark lyrical moments though, as thoughts of “rotting flesh” and “bombs explod[ing]” still appear – but as they appear in the same song as the profound warning, “the monkey will bite; better eat your poultry, too,” I think we can safely say, not too serious here.
In Reverie is very much an album with a sense of identity, but don’t let that confuse you into thinking that its songs are all homogenous. Just as the lyrics of In Reverie cover a large swath of ideas, so too do the songs’ styles. Most of the album is some form of indie power-pop but there’s a good dose of diversity hidden in there; ‘Where Are You?’ rocks (have I mentioned how much it rocks before?), ‘She’ is an acoustic ballad, and the rest of the album’s tracks traverse the varying gray areas between those two extremes. Starting with album opener (and stellar single material) ‘Anywhere With You’, In Reverie swims along through all manner of indie quirkiness before culminating in the album’s two best tracks, ‘Wednesday the Third’ and ‘Tomorrow Too Late’. These two closing songs offer the strongest argument in favor of In Reverie, as they present the evolutionary apex of the Beatles-influenced indie-pop that this album is all about. Both songs feature tight and expertly arranged structures, fantastic uses of rhythm, and – most important to their success – vibrantly written melodies. In a similar fashion to my lament of A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out‘s blacklisting, the greatest casualty of the In Reverie hatred is that these two final tracks are being missed, when instead they should be praised.
(As a sidenote, I feel compelled to mention that though it doesn’t change the sonic quality of the record at all, In Reverie has not just a great album cover but great art design all around. It’s a bright, simple set of designs that is creepy and hopeful and really just all the things that Saves the Day can be. Great, great art design by Stephan Doitschinoff and Eben D’Amico.)
Now, with the power of hindsight, I see something interesting with In Reverie: for all the things that it is – and is not – I think it’s very possible that In Reverie was an album ahead of its time. It sounds less like the albums that were well received in 2003 and more like the indie albums that have been released recently; it belongs more in the age of Wolfgang Amadeus Pheonix than it did in the time of De-Loused In the Comatorium. With it’s quirky lyrics, melodies, and tones, In Reverie may have been better suited for the hipster generation of 2012 than it was for the scene-core kids of 2003. Then again, I’m sure some hipster kid just shot PBR out his nose and down his archaically styled moustache at the thought of listening to In Reverie, because, you know man, irony…or something.
1. Other examples include Cursive releasing Happy Hollow on the heels of The Ugly Organ, The Sound of Animals Fighting following Tiger and the Duke with Lover, the Lord Has Left Us, and Lydia following Illuminate with Assailants and Paint It Golden.
2. As a lifelong fan of The Juliana Theory, I really love the way that eloquent reviewer was also able to make a pointed, concise criticism of TJT’s 2003 release Love at the end of his In Reverie review.
3. If you didn’t read the review from the last link, I’ll point you to Wikipedia which claims, in its usual tone of understatement that, “The drastic change in sound was divisive among fans.”
4. I always thought that during the opening moments of ‘Where Are You?’ Conley sounds strangely like Thursday’s Geoff Rickly. This is neither good nor bad. Just interesting to me.
This post originally appeared at Type In Stereo.