Throughout their career, Midlake has always capitalized on perfecting a sound so serene that when it approaches any kind of perceivable discord, it manages to gently lull listeners back with a quiet softness. It’s evident in the gentle rumblings of “Young Bride,” one of the most memorable moments from the band’s breakout 2006 album, The Trials of Van Occupanther.
Former lead vocalist Tim Smith made gentle but biting observations of a woman whose relationship is aging her but is powerless to its wrath (comparable to the 2008 single from Death Cab for Cutie’s entitled “Cath”). This is when the Texas natives were at their best; their lyricism was potent and the instrumentation was gentle but all-encompassing. Smith had the capability of bringing fans up to the highest highs and down to the lowest lows-it’s what separates the good storytellers from the great ones.
That prowess is still palpable under the guidance of frontman Eric Pulido on For The Sake of Bethel Woods, which is the group’s first album in 9 years. However, it is not as acute as it was on previous efforts. “Commune,” the opening track on the record, flaunts ravenous, high-paced guitar chords juxtaposed with ominous phrases (“Gone are the days of want and need/Brought all along by the Prince of Peace/With us be”).
It teases a reconnaissance of sorts: after nearly 10 years, what can Midlake bring to the table that they haven’t already shown us before? The answer is a bit more complicated than one might think.
The title track, which directly follows “Commune,” keeps the suspense going with rapid percussion and enthralling keyboards. Both are the most exciting moments on For The Sake of Bethel Woods. In addition, “Glistening” shines with its emphatic arpeggios and is so upbeat with its rhythms it’s the most danceable song on the project.
Midlake is heavily influenced by psychedelic rock (the cover of the album is taken from the 1970 documentary Woodstock) but trying their hand at paying homage to the genre doesn’t necessarily produce memorable results. “Feast of Carrion” is sonically pleasing but doesn’t offer much substance beyond that; “Gone” is too offbeat for it to properly stick.
Though the facet has always embraced the ambiguous nature of their lyrics regarding isolation, hopelessness, companionship and introspection, “Noble” ventures from this formula as it centralizes the child of drummer McKenzie Smith who suffers from a rare brain disorder. It’s a sauntering ode with ethereal vocals to emphasize how much of a miracle his son truly is. Lines like “You came in/Like a cherubim/Holy in every way life’s given” illustrate the depth of Smith’s gratitude and are as delicate as the subject itself.
“Of Desire” ends things on a lush, theatrical note. What starts as hushed contemplation ends in thunderous clamor, reminding fans of how potent they can be when they put their hearts into it. Midlake’s latest LP is a nice addition to their already impressive arsenal, but it would benefit from a more detailed kind of excavation.
Candace McDuffie is a culture writer whose work has appeared in outlets like Rolling Stone, MTV, NBC News, and Entertainment Weekly. You can follow her on Instagram @candace.mcduffie.