Infinite Arms, Band of Horses’ last album, was their first for a major label, and it found the band struggling with a new studio budget. The songs were big and slick but not terribly distinct, clearing up Ben Bridwell’s usually echoed vocals and sanding down the fuzzy edge of the guitars into songs that sounded glossy and thin. It was a major step away from their first two solid records, and a record that sounded like a good band had lost its way a little bit.
In some ways, Mirage Rock, finds them back on solid ground. This is no less slickly produced than its predecessor, but Band of Horses mines the big production for more distinct layers. Instead of the monolithic sheen of Infinite Arms, the new album gives us moments that are deeply textured and quite beautiful arena-rock tunes. Opener “Knock Knock” is the best example, using all that shiny production to craft a rollicking surf-rock tune, complete with Wilsonian backing vocals gliding over the top. The guitars crunch just enough, and all of a sudden you have the band’s first true major-label single that hits home. It leads us into the cleaner jangle of country-rocker “How to Live”, which is undeniably pristine, but they layer Bridwell’s clean vocals with some good vocal harmonies, and the guitar spins clouds of (relatively clean) dust around him. You may not buy it totally when he sings, “Guess what? I lost my job, / It’s just my luck,” but there’s enough earnestness to it, enough empathy that the song works.
Later in the album the band comes to life on the slashing guitars and high-register vocals of “Feud,” but most of the rest of the record finds Band of Horses in soft-rock mode, as if — with all this studio polish — they decided to up and become the new Eagles. What this means is that songs like “Slow Hands of Time” or “A Little Biblical” (which feels more like a pastoral Tom Petty) or the folky “Everything’s Gonna Be Undone” glide by pleasantly enough. In fact, pleasant is exactly the word for Mirage Rock. It’s a more rock-minded take on the kind of grinning folk-pop the likes of Fleet Foxes have made their name on. Which is fine and, in fact, this approach serves the band better since Infinite Arms showed them leaving their grittier sounds behind.
The problem is that it is also, for the most part, indistinct. Or rather, when it distinguishes itself, it does so as a version of someone else’s song. “Dumpster World,” before it morphs into an ill-advised metal-lite chug, sounds nearly identical to America’s “Horse With No Name” and more than a few moments (see, again, “Slow Cruel Hands of Time” or “Electric Music”) recall the likes of Jackson Browne. On top of that, the band deals blandly in pretty basic song tropes, from the freewheelin’ road tune “Electric Music” to the barroom, blue-light country of “Long Vows.”
Perhaps what renders these moments as (at their best) misguided tributes or (at their worst) by-the-numbers genre takes is the aimless lyrics. Keeping with its feel-goodness, the album deals in all kinds of vague quasi-philosophies and mysticism. Nature and the “open road” provide escape and shapeless beauty. A “sweet little love of mine” is encouraged not “let anything change your mind” about “all that you see, all that you seek to find.” Though what she may be seeking and what opposition she may come across is unclear. The quieter parts of the album’s most adventurous song, “Dumpster World,” chide blandly about “evils of the western world” and being “better over in America,” while the vitriol when the distortion kicks in and Bridwell bleats about “happy living in a dumpster world” and how we should “break out everybody in the jail, let’s get it on” it feels fake-dangerous and, ultimately toothless.
There’s this much to say about Mirage Rock, it tries some new things. Though “Dumster World” doesn’t work, nor does the schmatzy strings and spoken-word ache of closer “Heartbreak on the 101,” there is something to be said for Band of Horses stretching out musically on this album. The problem is that they stretch towards songs that are all too comfortable, all too willing to sell their own sense of wonder, a sense of wonder that is unearned since, within these lyrics, what the band may be wondering at or about is obscured. You’re not likely to get put off by any song on Mirage Rock. It won’t trick you, as its title implies, nor will it bludgeon you with its force. And in the end, maybe that’s the problem: the album, sweet as it sounds, is so polite that to keep from offending listeners it stops short of saying anything to them.