Imagine Cat Stevens fronting Contra-era Vampire Weekend and you’ll start to have an idea of what Chicago indie rock trio Maps & Atlases’ latest studio album, Lightlessness Is Nothing New, sounds like. Comprised of ten tracks that span just under forty minutes, Lightlessness… is Maps & Atlases first full-length record in six years.
“The Fear” opens Lightlessness… and, with a rhythmic hi-hat panning from left to right, immediately gives the refreshing illusion of clean space. “I’ve been waiting for years, for a moment that has long gone by,” Dave Davison sings in a vocal style that is at once folky and familiar. The song builds around the singer, adding sprightly electronic flourishes amidst Davison’s guitar without losing any of the spotless production. The back to back songs “Fall Apart” and “Ringing Bell” are the closest Maps & Atlases get to hit singles as they both have catchy hooks and memorable choruses, something every other song on this release is sadly lacking. “Violet Threaded” is immediately reminiscent of Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know” minus the duet feature. The record’s first half is closed out with the speedy “Fog and the Fall”, which, with its boisterous, upbeat ending has Maps & Atlases wrapping up side A on solid ground.
“Learn How to Swim” kicks off Lightlessness’ second half with rhythmic vocals providing some of the song’s percussion initially, almost like a scaled-down takeaway from Paul Simon’s “Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes”. “Super Bowl Sunday” is odd if only because Dave Davison’s tender, romantic reminiscences are framed around a brutal American sports holiday. Both “War Dreams” and “4/25” find Maps & Atlases dabbling in hypnogogic pop, utilizing analog drum machine effects and warbly synths. Unfortunately, these retro touches can’t save either song and both tracks are ultimately generic and forgettable. Lightlessness’ closer, “Wrong Kind of Magic”, is only slightly better than its two predecessors in-part because of the piano and Davison’s vocals which have him at his most Cat Stevens-esque. The song’s neo-prog finish, however, is odd and feels misplaced.
Overall, Lightlessness Is Nothing New’s first half is much better than its second. It’s obvious, based on the songs that work well during side A, that Lightlessness’ second half ultimately suffers from a lack of catchy hooks and memorable choruses, a compositional feature that Maps & Atlases have proved they can do well but have for whatever reason utilized all too sparingly on this, their third LP.