It gets tiring having to interpret a band such as Clearlake, not because the music wears on you – it’s anything but trying – but because there’s nothing straightforward about it. Vocalist Jason Pegg describes Amber, Clearlake’s third full-length and first full album since 2003’s brilliant Cedars, lyrically as the changing of moods from sunset to sunrise, how one might attempt to disguise negative feelings and let them slowly emerge as morning approaches.
Amber‘s lyrics do tell a story about coming to terms with emotional attachment, but the fact that Clearlake is more of a rock band than most want to admit has a large effect on the words’ sincerity. The dichotomy on the record between heavily emotional lyrics and driving guitars makes for all sorts of questions: Should the listener be allowed to get distracted by the music and let the lyrics support the sound, or should the beauty of the lyrics demonstrate Pegg to be all the more sincere simply because his words are hiding under all that music?
It almost feels as if Amber was created post-breakup, when the album’s main character wanted to reunite with old acquaintances as a replacement for bitterness and solitude. A song such as “Good Clean Fun,” one of Amber‘s catchiest and most masculine, with its rolling beats and menacing guitar angles, is fitting for the man who wants to split with his emotions. It also arrives just after the misfit title track, which hands the spotlight to a sharply sliced bass and street lamps that our character hasn’t seen lit up since being left on his own.
Pegg’s lyrical jewels here, though, are neither as aggressive nor as catchy as the songs that command attention. Both, however, find Amber‘s character realizing his need for the energy that other people provide, even though they approach the subject from different angles. “It’s Getting Light Outside” is poppy and peaceful, the musical equivalent of his thoughts on platonic pleasure: “Even though I could talk all day/ I still run out of things to say/ I feel fine in your company/ Even when we sit silently.” It’s about comfort in relationships, feeling at ease and knowing that no obligation to entertain or fulfill an expectation exists.
So when Pegg’s character later sings on “Dreamt That You Died” that “It took you to die/ That much so that I could wake up and finally see,” he experiences the same revelation as with “It’s Getting Light Outside,” only this time there is repressed regret over missed communication alongside his understanding. With another band, lyrics and subjects like this might seem trite, but with Clearlake, they melt into a realistic understanding of human emotion. And it works beautifully.
The members of Clearlake strove to make a rock record that would allow for a more intense live show; they supposedly spent free time listening to bands such as Queens of the Stone Age, Low, and Neil Young. And it shows. There are bits and pieces of sharp riffs, driving guitars circling into infinity. Pegg even plays harmonica on Amber‘s most traditionally American-sounding track, “Neon.” But nothing ever sounds directly influenced. This is quite a feat, given that some of Clearlake’s most striking songs, including those on 2005’s Wonder if the Snow Will Settle EP, are delicate and wintry. Dipping into heavier rock elements can make emotional lyrics seem misplaced at times – it almost seems like the band is intentionally aiming to present a man‘s record – but even the album’s rare moments with jagged guitar are tastefully executed.
Part of the band’s versatility is due to the charm of Pegg, who sings with the innocence and timidity of a British child (I’ve got Winnie the Pooh’s Christopher Robin on the brain, personally). His voice is addictive because of its immediate grace, but it never sounds overly confident. And it can round out nearly any style without having to adapt. Rather fortunate, because his presence tops off a record that tries new things and, despite a slow moment here and there, ultimately works in the band’s favor.
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