A subversive exercise in countering the nu-normal.
When discussing musical progression, change – especially sudden change – can be a big deal. Alternative music probably best exemplifies this trait, and it’s something that flies directly in the face of the mainstream, boy/girl band, ‘radio-ballad-with-a-rap/dance-hook’, corporate label cycle of the last three decades. For letlive., one of most-lauded and well respected post-hardcore punk bands in music today, change is not only a necessity but violently fundamental. With a career spanning 14 years, the Californian act has produced only four albums—all of which defy easy categorisation and sound utterly different from one another. Gifted by the presence and wisdom of charismatic frontman Jason Aaron Butler, letlive. have been able to both inhabit the realms of punk culture, and comment directly on them. And as far as Butler is concerned, “Punk is more an ideology than a scene dictated by what pants you wear. What are you saying, what do you believe in? That’s to me a better identifier.”
And so, with this understanding in the back of our mind, it comes as no great surprise to this reviewer that letlive.’s fourth studio album makes for no less of a polarising listen than those already present in the group’s back catalogue. On their newest record, ‘If I’m The Devil…’, the four-piece have opened their collective hearts and minds wider than ever before, by incorporating a wide swath of diverse influences from across the musical, political and spiritual spectra.
Opener ‘I’ve Learned To Love Myself’ prepares the listener for what’s to come, with drummer Lionel Robinson providing a massive drum beat over the top of swelling string sections, accompanied by Butler’s signature croon. Butler has always shown himself to be one of the most insightful, lucid and articulate musicians in punk rock today, and across ‘If I’m The Devil…’ he projects a sense of profound sadness and anger at situations like the much-publicised deaths of Eric Garner and Mike Brown, or the vehement social outrage which led to the riots in Ferguson, Missouri. Singles ‘Good Mourning, America’ and ‘Another Offensive Song’ channel letlive.’s passion for protest songs, manifesting themselves as fierce diatribes against aggression, antagonism and authority. These tracks could easily have found themselves on 2010’s stellar ‘Fake History’, with guitarist Jeff Sayhoun and bassist RJ Johnson bringing the heat by pairing lofty grooves with buzz saw guitar attacks—almost as if Refused & Rage Against The Machine were involved in some kind of high-speed collision.
Fans of the band have already begun to lament the lack of fury and vitriol present on ‘If I’m The Devil…’, and although this is an assessment that’s slightly premature and misplaced, it’s also fairly accurate. While ‘If I’m The Devil…’ may be softer in overall approach than earlier efforts, it remains just as vital and viscerally connected to its own contextual themes as the group’s previous outings. Letlive. have always had a strong message to deliver and that intent still rings loud and clear across these 11 tracks.
However, it’s when this record settles down, and moves into its more tempered moments, that things begin to get interesting. Tracks like ‘Elephant’ and ‘Nü Romantics’ pair up-beat tempos and wistful choruses with a modern, almost pop sheen, recalling later-day, mid-2000’s AFI. Butler even does a remarkably good Davey Havok impression in the fleeting backing vocals, which helps to transpose letlive.’s melodies on to new and curious shapes. In direct contrast, the record then serves up a slew of sonic curve-balls through-out its middle section: like the ghetto boom-bap intro of ‘Who You Are Not’, which then morphs in to a Top-40 radio banger; the Nirvana-esque grunge lead work and guitar solo efforts of ‘A Weak Ago’; or the piano-assisted soul balladry and bluesy riffs on ‘Foreign Cab Rides’. Not to be outdone, the record’s title track or the fantastic ‘Reluctantly Dead’ see letlive. embrace their inner indie potential, with song structures, production nuances and vocal harmonies reminiscent of classic releases like Brand New’s ‘The Devil And God Are Raging Inside Me’ or Manchester Orchestra’s ‘Mean Everything To Nothing’.
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Summing up a record like ‘If I’m The Devil...’ was always going to be a difficult task for this reviewer, especially when music by its very nature is wholly subjective. Thankfully, subjectivity is something which letlive. are very familiar with, and as fortune would have it, a more succinct and genuine summation of the record already exists. Speaking with Independent in the UK, Butler describes the album as, "A letlive. record, so obviously there’s always going to be an element of aggression and rock ’n’ roll present, but there is a lot of new stuff going on musically. There are elements of new wave, as well as some really dark hip-hop and soul influences, and even some indie references. We’ve always mixed things up and experimented, and this record is no different." Perhaps this is best characterised on the closer ‘Copper Colored Quiet’, where a huge vocal chant fades out over the return of those same string sections from the opener, against lyrics which declare, “We all came to watch your world as it burns.” A fitting signature for an album that’s proudly engaging, eccentric and elegiac.
1. I've Learned To Love Myself
2. Nü Romantics
3. Good Mourning, America
4. Who You Are Not
5. A Weak Ago
6. Foreign Cab Rides
7. Reluctantly Dead
9. Another Offensive Song
10. If I'm The Devil...
11. Copper Colored Quiet