Two years ago, Wesley Eisold seemed to have it made. Having left a world of metalcore bands and Fall Out Boy lawsuits behind him, he and a rotating cast of appealingly underground characters — most notably Prurient and Xiu Xiu’s Caralee McElroy — called themselves Cold Cave, went back to the old synth pop, and seemingly breathed new life into its dying revival. 2009’s Love Comes Close wasn’t the genre’s first time around the block, nor was it even its most triumphant moment, but it made for a mainstream breakthrough. Even Radio Shack wanted in on Cold Cave’s dancefloor melancholy, and Eisold’s well-timed coldwave makeover was a pleasant surprise.
Perhaps Eisold’s gotten too big for his britches (or post-punk drainpipes), but something strange happened while recording follow-up Cherish the Light Years. Gone is McElroy, whose icy vocals were a much-needed counterpart to Eisold’s overwhelmingly mopey drawl; in her place is a “supergroup” whose members — Nick Zinner and Glassjaw’s Daryl Palumbo among them — haven’t been particularly relevant or attractive since 2002.
As such, Cherish the Light Years turns the chugging hardcore volume up to 11, and the beefed-up production too often feels like banging one’s head against a brick wall. From the first rumbles of “The Great Pan Is Dead,” Cold Cave declares auditory assault — loud and churning, with Eisold’s impassioned moans fighting a loudness war against overblown synths and guitars. It’s impressive and arresting on sonics alone, but repeated exposure proves it to be a meandering mess: neither a conclusion nor memorable hook to be found. The next trio of songs — “Pacing Around the Church,” “Confetti,” and “Catacombs” — are enjoyable enough, but perhaps that’s more a testament to Eisold’s extraordinary Robert Smith karaoke than anything else.
There’s no denying that Cold Cave can craft a sweeping synth riff, but hindsight proves that the beauty of its early releases lies in lo-fi, sometimes murky mixing and mastering. Not only did such treatment lend Eisold’s synth pop a mysterious, occasionally hypnotic atmosphere, but it also made it impossible to understand what in the world he was whining about. As it turns out, for a man who runs a publishing house and counts Genesis P-Orridge among poetic collaborators, Eisold reveals himself to be a misanthropic suburban teen who never quite got over it.
“Underworld USA” has enough problems — Jennifer Clavin’s pseudo-sexy whisper of “underworld” throughout (you can’t blame her, it’s the only thing Eisold let her do), the uncomfortable squawk of electronics — on its own. Then you throw in a wrenched clarion call to disaffected youth, the same kids who hang outside the local Hot Topic bumming cigarettes: “They say the meek shall inherit the earth/Oh god, that seems like so much work/I want to sing and dream and drink and cry/And let this night pass me by.” Hopefully, Eisold soon reveals such lines to be a parody of his Give Up the Ghost/American Nightmare fanbase, but the achingly anthemic refrain — “I’ll carry your cross now, baby…we’re the tender missionaries from the Underworld USA” — belies his pin-up antihero fantasies. Even “Burning Sage,” with Depeche Mode sex appeal that’s almost good enough to be the album’s saving grace, is undone by apocalypse-for-the-Twilight-set references to black lungs and black suns. Lyrics notwithstanding, perhaps the most offensive thing about Cherish the Light Years is that Eisold thought the rock sax on “Alchemy and You” was a good idea.
Theoretically, there’s no shame in a band making a radical bid for mainstream success; you could argue that the transition from the noisy, abrasive Cremations EP to Love Comes Close‘s more streamlined darkwave was such a move. However, the even bigger jump Cold Cave strived for on Cherish the Light Years renders its finest moments a pantomime through synth pop history. Having blown out and polished away all of the music’s industrial grit, Eisold reveals himself to be little more than a meticulously researched, clinical New Order cover act. At one point, he sings “Take me to the future, I’m ready”…but Eisold’s heading backwards, both in terms of new wave history and his own oeuvre.