On the heels of three albums in four years, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros have been touring pretty constantly for a while now. And it’s no mystery as to why. Just listen to the band’s music for a minute and you’ll sense the boundless energy emanating from frontman Alex Ebert and his nine other band members. The hippie garb, folksy harmonizing, and laundry list of folk-rock revivalist musical tropes make the whole affair come across as willfully unapologetic. You’re left wondering where the character ends and the artist begins.
And there’s nothing wrong with playing a character, as long as the music’s there. Sure, the whole schtick of Edward Sharpe can feel a bit hacky when considered in the context of folk music, a genre essentially built on the expounding of truth. Yet, no mention of Edward Sharpe can be made without acknowledging the band’s 2010 breakout single off of their debut, “Home.” It’s chaotic, campy, goofy, over-the-top and ‒ still ‒ hard not to enjoy. It’s the ten-piece group clicking on all cylinders, making a song that is self-conscious yet still warm and catchy and not overly generic. It’s no masterpiece, but it works as a good jumping off point for the band stylistically.
2012’s Here was a much cleaner record than the band’s debut, more tightly wound and full of some really lush melodies. The band’s decision to dial it down in terms of energy may have been at odds with Alex Ebert’s go-go-go! mission statement, but it made for a much more welcoming LP.
So where does Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros’ music find itself a year later on the band’s 2013 self-titled album?
Well, it’s more on par with the debut, Up from Below. The band goes in a slightly more chaotic direction, stuffing more sounds into these songs. While the band has always had some funny tics, the added chaos seems to aggravate certain qualities. The main issue is a general lack of sophistication, which isn’t inherently a bad thing. Yet this proud lack of sophistication paves the way for lazy lyricism (seen on “Let’s Get High,” “Life is Hard,” and “Please!” most notably, though popping up sporadically across the record) and a general sense of fatigue as the album reaches the second half. It makes the songs feel a bit hollow and thrown together.
Many of these songs give forth the illusion of energy, but, in reality, the band appears to need a break. Ebert sounds pretty similar over most of these songs. You will find lots of harmonizing and horns and very little that feels novel. It’s been clear throughout this band’s short existence that Edward Sharpe has a vision. It isn’t particularly clear and honed, but it’s there and inhabits every single facet of the band’s songs. This is mostly a favorable quality that can quickly turn into a destructive quality, as it gives way to autopilot complacency. It’s the same quality that has struck Edward Sharpe’s new labelmates, Mumford and Sons. I won’t be the next person to dump on Mumford and Sons’ music ‒ ripping Mumford and Sons’ music may be the only thing more boring than Mumford and Sons’ music ‒ but it’s hard to deny that, even if their music is “nice,” it certainly follows a formula.
There’s plenty of talent and potential within Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. In fact, I have high hopes for Jade Castrinos’s upcoming solo album. But, as a band, it seems like they’re drifting closer and closer to formula. There are a few inspired moments, but, for the most part, this album vacillates between actively bad and simply dull. I’ll take some passionate misfires (as was mainly the case on their debut album), but when a band preaching fun and energy actually sounds boring, the album suffers both musically and credibly.
MP3: Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros “Remember to Remember”