If you’re someone who reads a lot of reviews, you’ve probably noticed that a lot of albums receive write-ups that are merely positive. If you’re not, then it probably seems as if there are lot more glowing or brutal reviews written, but that’s just due to the sad fact that reviews with extreme reactions are a lot more interesting to read. Realistically, most artists who go through the trouble of putting out an album and sending it to publications have some merit, and writers tend to listen to stuff that they think they might like.
Land of Talk is a consistently well-reviewed band, about whom there seems to be a critical consensus that it is good. Their second full-length, Cloak and Cipher, easily confirms this. Not a single bad song mars its 10 tracks, and the album delivers the kind of airy, noise-punctuated material that listeners are used to from Land of Talk. This is not to say that Cloak and Cipher is too much of the same; it certainly sounds like the tour the band did with Broken Social Scene not too long ago has had some effect on their sound, especially listening to the noisy guitar debris of “Swift Coin” or “The Hate I Won’t Commit.” On the other hand, the band has also maybe become less bombastic, and Elizabeth Powell’s feathery voice takes up more of the album’s space than in Some Are Lakes.
But when you’ve listened to a lot of decent albums from a lot of talented bands, a question that comes up is, Why is this good album just good? What is it that stops it from being special or major or even great. If Land of Talk can manage to put together a satisfying collection of melodically tight, compelling songs, which is what Cloak and Cipher is, what is it that stops it from being parrotted about effusively as essential? What pushes an album into the enormous company of records whose creators have fretted over and agonized about that are only good instead of something more serious?
It’s a strange roadlbock to come up against, “What’s stopping this album I’m enjoying from sending me into paroxysms of aural delight?” It’s an area where it’s hard to make any kind of generalizations, because, of course, everyone will respond differently to any given piece of music. The answer probably lies somewhere in the idea of “freshness.” With music, there’s an incredibly specific feeling that happens when you’re just genuinely surprised by the sonics of a song, by the places where it goes. Something can be well-executed and thoughtful and well-written, and still not make you start underneath your headphones. It takes the thrill of uniqueness to eak out some new space in your brain, to make you take note: “Music sounds like this, too.” In 2010, Land of Talk doesn’t bridge the hair’s breadth difference between what’s very well-done and what’s exceptionally well-done.
The fact remains, however, that Cloak and Cipher is an impressive piece of work, and inevitably that idea of novelty up there is just a cultural standard, determined by every other album ever released. It’s an interesting thing to consider if you’re trying to articulate the context around a piece of work, but it’s not too much more than that. So what if Land of Talks latest doesn’t deliver some zeitgeist splitting rock manifesto? If some kid stumbles on this album in 15 years and hops around to “Quarry Hymns” in their room, they certainly won’t care about that, and there’s no reason why they should.