Usually when a band repeats itself on an album, it admits to creative bankruptcy. When Silversun Pickups do it, they’re exploring their sound’s borders. Part amorphous/androgynous shoegaze by way of Autolux or Ride, part triumphant guitar rock circa Smashing Pumpkins, Silversun Pickups effectively remade their 2006 sleeper hit Carnavas and called it this year’s Swoon. Guitarist Brian Aubert and bassist Nikki Monninger still trade ethereal, interchangeable vocals. Drummer Chris Guanlao still pounds out monotonous drum beats, adding some psychedelic stomp to the songs’ drone. And keyboardist Joe Lester is still the band’s secret centerpiece, filling in gaps in guitar work with ambient lines. Though Swoon never provides anything as immediate and touching as Carnavas’ big hit “Lazy Eye,” it does offer 10 more reasons to love the band’s ambient alternative rock. This time with strings! A style this good bears repeating.
The record opens with “There’s No Secrets This Year,” its second single and arguably most assured track. Shoegaze usually succeeds more based on what the listener can’t hear than what he and/or she does hear, but Swoon’s cleaner vocal takes mean everyone can join in when Aubert hits the thrilling chorus of “I’ll tell you a secret / I’ll make it perfectly clear / There’s no secrets this year.” Given the band’s upcoming festival itinerary, it feels like a statement of purpose, a welcome sign to fans from all four corners.
There are moments when that cleaner recording style works against Swoon, though, like when Aubert’s lyrics aren’t particularly invigorating. Lines like “How many times do you wanna die? / How many ways do you wanna die?”, from “The Royal We,” come off too melodramatic and clunky, and the instrumentation sounds overcompressed in spots as well. A thicker fog of audio haze could’ve saved the song, but “The Royal We” rocks well enough to compensate on its own terms. A string section adds a second layer of squall in ways Pikul never thought about.
Other songs are easy to love unconditionally. “Growing Old is Getting Old” slowly, epically builds from a quiet bassline to a roaring cascade of drums and guitar. Aubert and Monninger beautifully trade vocals back and forth on “It’s Nice to Know You Work Alone.” It’s not necessarily about what each individual part sounds like but where they all dreamily meet. Swoon puts a lot of work, successfully, into its ambience, but those looking for a little more stomp like “Secrets” finally get paid off with “Substitution” and “Surrounded (or Spiraling).”
The two biggest slags against Silversun Pickups are usually the lyrics and the Pumpkins connection, which is funny given that Billy Corgan took plenty of grief for his own word choices. Swoon isn’t going to sway many away from those accusations, although it doesn’t embarrass itself too much lyrically and certainly beats everything Corgan has done post-MACHINA. For those already in the know, though, relax. Swoon is a worthy follow-up to Carnavas. If the cliché about sophomore albums being cleaned up repeats of debuts is true, imagine what the Pickups’ challenging third LP will sound like.