Papercuts’ fourth album, Fading Parade, is its first for the venerable record label Sub Pop. You would think that if Jason Quever were ever going to make his lo-fi pop project more marketable, now would be the time. It wouldn’t be hard to come up with some suggestions on how best to do so: (1) Dredge the vocals from the bottom of the mix, where they currently exist, to the surface, where they could be better enjoyed, (2) increase the clarity of the production so that it sounds less like a phonograph on a windy day and more like something you can at least imagine being recorded in the past half-century, (3) lay off the aching ballads and stick to the jaunty, hook-centric numbers like “Future Primitive” off You Can Have What You Want or “John Brown,” off Can’t Go Back. Next stop: the closing credit sequence of The Vampire Diaries.
Likely someone at Sub Pop has already offered these suggestions to Quever. Likely he has encountered suggestions of how to “clean up” his sound ever since Papercuts released its first album, Mockingbird, back in 2004. But it’s just as likely that Quever has never given those suggestions any real consideration. He seems as committed to his hazy, bedroom-pop aesthetic as a from-the-cradle vegetarian seems committed to soy-based products — which is an attitude to be admired, even if you get the feeling when listening to Fading Parade that you’ve been here before.
Similar to previous Papercuts releases, Fading Parade features a few songs that mix delicious pop melodies with muddy arrangements in a way that that is downright stunning. “Do You What You Will” is one standout, with a soaring chorus and an insistent bass line. The track sounds like an old hit originally played on The Ed Sullivan Show that’s been refracted through a cloud of pot fumes and wood smoke. Another highlight, “Marie Says You’ve Changed” features jangling guitars, cymbal washes, and Quever’s breathy vocals layered over a driving drumbeat that wouldn’t be out of place on an album by the National. These songs are brilliant and instantly arresting because you can see Quever’s handywork, how he’s cleverly rearranged the pieces of what could be a conventional pop song into something unique.
If Fading Parade was all “Do What You Will”s, the album would be a certifiable hit. But as good as Quever may be at churning out catchy lo-fi candy, he seems as interested in writing subtly powerful slow songs that build and crest like ocean waves. These tracks are where Quever earns the “dream pop” tag Papercuts is often labeled with. And though you could fall asleep to these songs, you’d have to stop paying attention to do it. Indeed, there are moments on Fading Parade’s downtempo songs that are just as moving as the flashy tromp of “Do What You Will” — see the swelling chorus of “White are the Waves” or the sudden, revelatory chord change in the middle of “Wait Till I’m Dead.”
As a collection of whispery bummer rock, Fading Parade respects the tradition set by its predecessors. But Quever’s refusal to change may not always be an asset. Two of Papercuts’ notable peers in the lo-fi genre — Grizzly Bear and Beach House — have opened up their respective sounds, finding artistic and commercial success as a result. You have to wonder what might happen, or what Papercuts might be capable of achieving, were Quever to shine a little light into his already impressive bedroom.