Sam Roberts

    Chemical City


    It would be easy to lump Sam Roberts into the overly crowded pool of songwriters who are deemed an earnest or sensitive “everyman.” It would be even easier to overlook Roberts based on this typecast alone. Factor in a sound that is tightly wound, carefully constructed, insistent power pop complete with lyrical themes of isolation and nomadic wandering. Even his personal back-story follows suit; ex-hockey player, traveler, shaggy hair, handsome, scrappy beard. On an initial breeze through, the music is not arty or experimental enough for serious music fans to uncover something new. Blame the usual suspects: traditional song structure, instrumental arrangement, vocal style, et cetera.


    The fact is, most people who spend the time searching out music criticism for enlightenment or help in deciding what is worthy are looking for particulars, not generals. The joy of discovering music is the prospect of unearthing a nugget of truth, cleverness or originality. It makes us feel good to connect with and understand an artist on this level. Unfortunately for Roberts, being an everyman is not a commodity in high demand. We’ve been exposed to the “everyman” most of our lives, and in art the stereotype must transcend into a fresh entity or it will inevitably remain a stereotype.


    Still, Roberts is not without his merits. He can write a hook good enough to help us overlook what’s lacking, as evidenced on “Bridge to Nowhere” and “The Resistance.” He can, at times, stretch and transcend the boundaries of his music with electrifying results. Opener “The Gate” is an expansive, complex, dynamic, sometimes confusing journey through the fictional “Chemical City.” The standout track, “Mind Flood,” expands on the groundwork laid on the “The Gate,” evolving into an unhinged beast devoid of the structure and form that Roberts hammers home throughout the album. Were it for more moments of this uncaged fury, Roberts’ album would have solid footing. The problem is, his preoccupation with perfecting pristine mid-tempo power pop impedes his ability to organically let his songs develop and form an identity. In the end, we are left with few moments of joy and many moments of redundancy, but mostly we’re left wondering what could have been.


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