'A New Tide'

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Gomez is my favorite band.  They have been since my friend Mark played me their Machismo EP eight years ago in our sophomore-year high school English class.  (Goodness knows where he got his hands on the thing, come to think of it.)  I bought In Our Gun when I was in London on an ill-chaperoned, mostly-drunken school trip when I was sixteen.  I took nine of my friends to a concert in Santa Cruz for my seventeenth birthday.  (Photographic evidence: here.)  Gomez and I, we’ve got history.

So I’ll concede that I’m coming to their new album, A New Tide, with rose-tinted glasses.  And there’s no denying that it’s a very different Gomez album than what’s come before it, and I can see how some people were disappointed by that.  But while A New Tide didn’t exactly exceed my expectations, it did subvert them, in a way, and I find myself enjoying the album more and more with each subsequent listen.

It is not, it must be said, a rock album.  This is not Split The Difference: there are no covers of dead Delta bluesmen; far fewer scuzzy electric guitars; and next to nothing that could reasonably be described as “raw”.  A New Tide is also neither as bluesy as Bring It On, their debut, nor as experimental as In Our Gun or Abandoned Shopping Trolley Hotline.  If anything, it is an impeccably polished album, and that it shares with its immediate predecessor, 2006’s How We Operate.  But HWO, more than anything, was concerned with creating perfect pop songs, with boiling down Gomez’s palette of influences to three minutes of radio-friendly ear candy.  A New Tide is no less poppy but a great deal looser and, under examination, a great deal stranger – a marriage of the freewheeling attitude of Abandoned Shopping Trolley Hotline with the craft of How We Operate, to greater effect than both.

Gomez has traditionally shared songwriting duties, with rough equality, between their three lead singers: Tom Gray, Ian Ball, and Ben Ottwell.  Gray’s influence, though, has been waning in recent years, and on A New Tide he contributes only one song, the laid-back, shuffling “If I Ask You Nicely”.  And it’s a great song, introduced by a sly bass line (courtesy of Paul Blackburn, who has apparently learned how to play the acoustic bass sometime in the last few years) and featuring a noodling little keyboard riff.  But it’s rather similar to “Woman! Man!” and “Girlshapedlovedrug” – Gray’s contributions to How We Operate – and it seems that he doesn’t have too much to say at this point, and sad as it is, I think that A New Tide is stronger for his background role.

Ottwell, with his howling, gravelly voice, has served as an unofficial frontman for the band for most of their existence, and his songs – like Ian Ball, about whom I will say more in a moment – bear the strage, anachronistic flourishes that make A New Tide so delightful.  “Lost Pieces” proceeds as a fairly conventional rock song until the bridge, when a triumphant key change catapults it into another realm entirely.  “Natural Reaction” rides along on the back of a jangly banjo riff before devolving into an eerie, marimba-led breakdown that somehow leads back to the chorus.  And “Lost Track”, by far Ottwell’s strongest song here, has a strangely-driving cello in its coda.  (It also features some of Ottwell’s strongest writing in a couple of albums, at least.  He’s always been able to turn a phrase better than anyone else in the band, but he outdoes himself with lines like, “I know you’ll leave tonight under cover of dark / Across the old town, and escape through the park / I may have built this fire, but you provided the spark.”)

A New Tide, though, is Ball’s album, almost as completely as was his 2007 solo debut Who Goes There.  He’s responsible for its most exuberant moment, the sublimely silly “Airstream Driver”.  (Which also features a thunderous drum part from Peacock.)  “Mix”, the opener, seemed at first to be an odd choice to open the album, but I’ve come to quite like it.  It’s absorbing, but not flashy, and in that it sets the tone nicely.  But it’s “Win Park Slope” that makes the album, and I won’t say any more about it except: go listen to it.  Trust me, you’ll be doing yourself a favor.

There are, it must be said, flaws.  Some of the songs, like “Other Plans”, pass with little impact, and overall the album is a bit homogenous.  And I have no idea how it’ll age: I was similarly excited about How We Operate when it came out, but I’ve cooled considerably toward it in the last three years..  But for now I’m loving A New Tide, and I will give them this: I have no idea where they’ll go next.