Monday, March 9, 2009

Earotica: Love at the End of the World-Sam Roberts Review

Sam Roberts is a committed songwriter, someone who understands that timelessness isn't something you strive for, it's something you achieve through forward thinking, championing human beings, and using art to do good. Roberts latest release, Love at the End of the World, is perhaps more memorable lyrically than musically, with songs that transcend the moment they were recorded in and in doing so, achieve a sort of timeless quality. And you get the feeling that Roberts is grappling with his exterior and interior worlds at the same time.

The tracks on LATEOTW feel like the product of an old soul with a decidedly modern production style. On tracks like "Sundance," "Detroit '67," and "Words and Fire," there is an urge, a longing to have been part of times when the struggles of the people became songs that meant something. Like Bob Dylan and John Lennon before him, Sam Roberts is a man who puts the politics of the soul and of the human condition into his music.

But LATEOTW also feels like the diary of a man alone. Try as he might to convince other people of love's healing power, he himself is more adrift. Gone are the third person declarations of hope and hippy sentimentality of his previous two records, this is Roberts alone and speaking straight from the heart. Dylan paraphrases like "Before I was your man/Now look at me I'm just young and old" on "Oh, Maria" lead to the general conclusion throughout LATEOTW that things could be better, but the answers to life's questions are maddeningly out of reach. "Life is for the taking" sings Roberts at barely a whisper, as if those words belong to long gone idealism of love and living that no one now seems willing to accept, the real world being too much in the way. You can see it with his denunciation of materialism on the record's title track and on "Stripmall Religion." Sad and hopeful all at once are most of the songs on LATEOTW, summed up in this phrase from "Them Kids": "The golden years are under attack/We're taking them back."

If I could level one criticism at this record, it would be that Roberts needs to let his band turn up to 11. His isn't a band with a history of being particularly loud, but 2006's Chemical City feels like Led Zeppelin II in comparison to this one. Thanks to the efforts of the Roberts' band, LATEOTW comes close to really rocking. On what is arguably the hardest song of the album, "Them Kids," Roberts becomes a prophet of rock's power to change: "We were apostles/They were the high priests/We lived the hustle/The keepers of the back beat." If that isn't rock's rallying cry, I don't know what is. He just needs to turn the guitars up a little louder, let his message reach more ears.

Granted, Roberts has his reasons for the subdued production. LATEOTW's message is more introverted and personal than raucous, almost as if to say "If you have something worth saying, you shouldn't need to dress it in distortion." But just the same, I would have liked a solo or two. By comparison, LATEOTW's quieter moments do work. Roberts' duet with Angela Desveaux is the sweetest moment on the album.

Overall, LATEOTW is practically ego-less, which helps its message work on the soul of every listener. The muted-rock feel slows down the album's second half, but it's worth sticking it out because it means hearing some of the record's most memorable lines ("I was too afraid to read the newspaper/Working in the basement of a skyscraper," from "The Pilgrim," as well as the album's apex, "Detroit '67" springs to mind.) If the rest of songs in Robert's catalog sound like a tribute to the music of the 60s and 70s, "Detroit" sounds like it fell out of a time capsule. With a driving dance piano, beat, and chord progression, it rings like the harbinger of positive change that kids must have felt in their garages in 1967, when real rock arrived to pick them up and give them some hope. "I'm just looking for some sounds/To ease the vice that squeezes us every day," sings Roberts. LATEOTW truly has a way with words and Roberts' music will change some lives for the better....the way music used to.

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