As a musician, Luke Wyland wears his classically trained chops on his sleeve. Listen to any track from the catalog of his Portland-based, experimental folk-pop project AU and it’s fairly obvious the guy is an immensely talented vocalist, multi-instrumentalist and composer. Marked with equal parts jazz-influenced and indie rock bombast, each of AU’s first three releases (2007’s self-titled debut, 2008’s Verbs, and 2009’s Visions) featured a talented, small village of collaborators that admirably buoyed Wyland’s seismic musical vision. He knows how to mess with a time signature, his arrangements are almost always impressively grand, and the AU modus operandi revolves around crafting sprawling albums that are both borderline virtuosic and unapologetically dense.
Admittedly, in lesser hands, attempts at making this kind of progressive pop music would surely falter. Animal Collective comparisons are inevitable, especially their early, freak-folkish albums Feels and Sung Tongs. But while Avey Tare, Panda Bear and company have moved on to experiment with a wider range of electronic textures and soundscapes, Wyland remains tied to the jazz-influenced, world music/indie pop of AU’s first three albums with his latest release, Both Lights. The result is an album brimming with ideas but marred by a sense of stagnation, where Wyland seems to be mistaking busy and loud for dynamic.
The opening track, suitably titled “Epic,” brings both the flaws and promise of Both Lights into stark focus. A four-minute instrumental track with two winding, distinct motifs (featuring a rapid fire guitar and pounding piano line, in addition to dozens of other sounds) expends a lot of energy, and has a few interesting moments, but eventually goes nowhere. The composition is impressive, and the musical acumen displayed remains unparalleled, but it sounds more like a music theory class’ experiment than a finished product. The instrumental, abrasive “Why I Must” and wispy, meandering “Go Slow” both fall under the same category of perpetual motion music without a visible, meaningful end.
Wyland and company are at their most engaging when they go for the jugular and attempt to make slow building, operatic indie rock in the vein of Devotchka and the Arcade Fire. The vibrant “Get Alive,” and to a lesser extent lead single “Solid Gold,” ascend dramatically thanks to Wyland’s vocal work and rubbery central harmonies to become the soaring anthems the group seems to execute effortlessly. The slow burning and genuinely gorgeous "Crazy Idol" takes Both Lights’ best of show, as Wyland’s usual storm of sound relents, affording his composition room to breathe and grow in quiet, devastating glory.
Not unlike the ambitious, semi-incoherent hopeful tent pole film John Carter (bear with me, I've been thinking a lot lately about this movie's perceived failure), Both Lights runs fast and loose with ideas and concepts, but sometimes loses its balance under all that weight. In the end, even if Wyland and AU miss the mark occasionally and become too interested in their long-winded tendencies, the album remains a massive, challenging slab of music that does not pander to the listener. Both Lights, for all its faults and successes, remains a worthy exploration.