When The Dear Hunter released The Color Spectrum in 2011, much like when Thrice released The Alchemy Index throughout 2007 and 2008, a truly massive and ambitious project was born into the world. Somewhat inevitable, then, was the reality that for each band, their next release would be significantly less ambitious. Thrice followed their sonically experimental quadripartite foray into the classical elements with 2009’s Beggars, a simple and stripped down blues-rock album (with a distinctly Thrice-y flavor) that was disappointingly basic to some and reassuringly grounded to others. The Dear Hunter, meanwhile, has followed their genre-bending nonuple adventure into chromaticism with the recently released Migrant, a piano-heavy – and oftentimes mellow – classical pop album. It’s an album that, much like Beggars, is sure to disappoint a significant amount of the band’s “hardcore” fans while simultaneously appealing to a whole new demographic. And, as a hardcore fan of TDH myself, it has not been easy wrapping my brain around what makes Migrant work and whether or not it works for me.
Listening to Migrant, I keep thinking I’ll discover the million little flourishes that mark every other TDH record – melodies echoed across songs, lyrical allusion to past records, and modified riffs from one song that end up in another – but this is not how Migrant is built. In fact, for longtime fans, the fact that Migrant is a relatively simple record may actually make it more complicated to unpack (the very prospect of which may cause your brain to explode). In their first releases, The Dear Hunter experimented with varying sounds and styles across the different parts of individual songs. Following that, they experimented with varying sounds across several songs, eventually leading to The Color Spectrum, the entire premise of which was to experiment with varying sounds over groups of four songs. And now with Migrant it appears that The Dear Hunter wants to explore a single sound – a semi-laid-back, piano pop, kind of pseudo big band sound that seems to be most often embodied by stylish Mad Men-era-revivalists like Justin Timberlake – over the course of a whole record. It totally makes sense. Except that this is The Dear Hunter. So it totally doesn’t.
Part of the difficulty with a release that follows any massive and experimental work like The Alchemy Index or The Color Spectrum is that those types of albums leave a lot of fans thinking, “Oh my God, what wild concept will these guys think of next?!” But musicians aren’t big budget film makers. Most likely, when bands like Thrice or The Dear Hunter head into the studio, they’re thinking, “That last record was a lot of fun, but let’s do something different this time.” They’re not interested in out-concepting their last record to appease the never-sated desires of their fans. There’s a reason (or two) that Michael Bay makes movies and not music; showing up and doing the same thing over and over again with more explosions, sluttier women, and more robust robot testes might work for action movies, but that kind of ever-escalating entertainment arms race is not something that most bands want to deal with. It’s just too taxing and, frankly, unrealistic. There are only so many hyper-pretentious concepts to go around.
All of which is to say that fans such as myself – those of us who love the experimental, prog-heavy bent of concept projects – need to be careful with our expectations: no matter what Migrant is or was ever going to be, it was never likely that it would out-concept The Color Spectrum.
The Dear Hunter has always been a difficult band to define and that remains true with Migrant. Casey Crescenzo and company have never shied away from expanding their instrument base from the archetypal rock band elements of guitar, bass and drums, but on Migrant in particular it seems as though The Dear Hunter are happy to let those old standbys gather dust while Casey focuses on keys, and a string quartet rounds out the sound. The album opens with a light string arrangement and a facile piano line, and when guitars finally do enter the fray (at about the minute and a half mark) they are overshadowed by a small horn section. The closest that Migrant ever comes to the unrelenting bombast – guitar driven or otherwise – of some previous TDH tracks (I’m looking at you, ‘City Escape’ and ‘Mustard Gas’) is during the elevated chorus and bridge of ‘Let Go,’ but even then the adrenaline is controlled and moderated.
It’s actually a rather impressive feat that Migrant, whose BPMs tend to fall well beneath those of your standard rock album, never feels tired; The Dear Hunter obviously expelled a tremendous amount of energy on The Color Spectrum and there’s a temptation to chalk up the relaxed vibe of Migrant to burn-out, but I don’t think that’s accurate. It’s not that The Dear Hunter is tired, it’s that they’ve come to a place where they don’t feel the need to – and don’t necessarily want to – do everything full throttle. There’s a difference between moving carefully and drifting listlessly, and Migrant always makes sure to stay on the right side of that divide. Ultimately, the word that most often comes to mind when thinking of Migrant – even during its more frantic moments – is “calm.” And that vibe, which resonates through the album in a way that’s sure to make it required listening on lazy summer days, is certainly intentional.
Conventional wisdom (at least as conventional as anything can be when dealing with a band that operates as far outside the box of conventionalism as The Dear Hunter) would suggest that the strongest songs on Migrant are those that mix a healthy dose of energy with TDH’s newfound serenity. In the first half of the record, ‘An Escape’ moves at a solid clip but never feels hectic, while ‘Shouting at the Rain’ carries some weight but is so peaceful that it will practically make you book a beach vacation after your first listen. On the album’s latter half, ‘Let Go’ soars with a typically brilliant melodic line, while ‘Don’t Look Back’ closes out the album with such a cool sense of finality that it feels like it should play during the end credits of a Bond movie. (Allow me a quick tangent: most of this album, to me at least, feels vaguely like a soundtrack, much in the same way that ‘Dear Ms. Leading’ always felt to me like it should have been a Bond theme. I guess what I’m saying is: Adele can take a break; Casey Crescenzo needs to score the next Bond film. So, yeah. That’s that.) For the most part these are the songs that I’ve found myself enjoying most. But the reality is that the uptempo moments that I’m clinging to are probably the moments furthest from the core of what the album really is. Because Migrant wasn’t made for me. Just as none of the previous TDH records have been made for me. That TDH’s overall body of work has overlapped so closely with my own idealized musical self-image has been fortuitous, though never intentional (at least on the part of the band), and now it appears that they’ve moved on to an area that doesn’t fit so tightly with where I am (musically speaking) at the present. And though I may someday come into a space where my love for Migrant expands – and it’s worth noting that this seems to me less like a possibility and more like an inevitability – it is, at the present, the TDH album that resonates with me the least. I miss the bombast. I miss the eccentricity.
There’s no debating that The Dear Hunter is one of the most talented bands working today and I would argue that there’s ultimately no debating whether or not Migrant is a good record. It is. But whether or not it’s for you right now? That’s a little harder. As is the case with all The Dear Hunter records to date, I suppose you’ll have to listen yourself to find out.
Grade: A calm record that is less for those who wear plugs in their ears and drink crafted beer, and more for those who wear their hair slicked back and like their whiskey neat.
This post originally appeared at Type In Stereo.