Morosely intelligent, prickly and dissatisfied, seized with floating anxiety about...well, everything
, secretly optimistic and constantly disappointed -- if The New Year were a guy, he'd be one of those bleakly attractive characters you spend your whole life trying to cheer up. So when I found myself falling headfirst for this band's second album, sinking like a stone into its gently spoken but sharp-edged lyrics, difficult rhythms, shimmering, echoing waves of guitars, it was with a sense of foreboding. These things, they never end well.
My misgivings are, perhaps, appropriate, since endings -- of the world, of relationships, of youth, of possibility -- are an overriding theme here. Born from the ashes of Bedhead at the dawn of the new millennium, The New Year (brothers Matt and Bubba Kadane, with Chris Brokaw on drums, Mike Donofrio on bass and Peter Schmidt adding a third guitar) give voice to the existential crises of early adulthood. On "Disease", they demand, "Give me back my childhood / let me keep my beard / I'll be a freakish little man." Later, in the soaring "18", they return to the topic: ""Even when you're looking out of your body / it's one day away from being a corpse / you still feel 18 on the inside / this is something you should know / there's no escape from getting old / did I hear when I was told so / when I was 18 on the outside." I've seen them play. They're not that old -- early thirties, I'd guess. Yet this is exactly the time when reality starts to close in -- marriage, success or failure, the realization that it's just not possible to start over again from scratch -- and The End Is Near captures its seething anxiety.
The New Year's sound is fraught with contradictions, soft melodies and pretty strumming stretched over tricky rhythms and acerbic lyrics. It is also a very guitar-heavy sound, though more of the hazy, dreamlike VU variety than anything else. Album opener (and quasi-title track) "The End's Not Near" is both gentle and disturbing, lullaby-soft vocals hiding sharp-edged observations about millennial unease, martyrs and satellite monitoring. The vocals are echoed with undulating guitar, pursuing a serpentine time signature (15/8?) that keeps a pretty song from being easy.
"Sinking Ship", in a more conventional 4/4, voices more introspective and personal concerns in the same whispery tones, sounding a bit like Dean Wareham. The lyrics, again, are quite good, though for some reason the band elected to incorporate four pages of distorted photos into the packaging so you have to figure them out for yourself. It's well worth the time, though, to decipher lyrics like this stanza on empty good times and false camaraderie: "There's nothing worse than a party where you don't know anybody / the men want to get it on / the women want to show it off / I just want to get out of here and unhook my smile from my ears."
Musically, one of the standout tracks is "Chinese Handcuffs", its insinuating bassline punctuated with rim shots, and scratchy guitars that echo and fill in the spaces between bottom notes. There's room here for extended musical interplay, a shimmering canvas with warm highlights and blue-chilly shadows, drawing you in and keeping its distance. Lyrically, this is a mid-life relationship song, elliptically exploring the way that lives become inextricably (and not always pleasantly) entangled. It's not easy to make a metaphor work like this, drawing the connection without hitting you over the head, but The New Year does it in a few lines: "We're not two pieces of the pie / we're too fingers in Chinese handcuffs / the more we pull we stay / the more we stay we pull apart / this wicker toy / with it the joy of things that bind in pain / keep us in love."
The other track I keep returning to is "18", the disc's longest song, and for a band that shows some signs of perfectionism, the one that comes closest to free-flowing release. It starts with quiet strummed guitars, slow-rocking drums and those age-fearing lyrics I quoted above. The guitars gradually get louder, a series of chords over a bedrock of eighth-notes, building through the second verse. There's an upward slope to the cry of "But somebody comes through that window to get me out of here," and the band responds with its most untrammeled jam. It's one of those rare cuts where music really does redeem a hopeless situation, giving a hint of some ideal place where even The New Year could live happily ever after.