Four years after releasing the magnificent The Peace Of Wild Things, Tennessee's electronic rockers Paper Route return with a sixteen song opus, Real Emotion, that runs the gamut of sounds, textures, emotions and themes in one of the best albums of the year. Real Emotion is an old-school concept album that tells the story of the stages of a relationship, that alas, has run its course.
After a left field intro number (titled "Intro," naturally), built around what sounds like an ABBA sample (a melody line which is repeated later in the song "Untitled"), "Writing On The Wall" explodes with an aggressive guitar line and an ironically detached and over-processed vocal by JT Daly. "Writing" reveals a new, highly aggressive flavor for the band, and the higher harmony of Daly's processed vocal is matched with a more traditional, lower range melody line that adds to the overall effect of the track. With a name that demands attention like "Writing On The Wall," and its position as an opening number, this song needed to be a stylistic standout. Mission accomplished.
"Pretend" falls into the category of a classic break up song, mixing the sweet sadness of an 80's New Wave track (like something from a John Hughes movie) with the irony and edge of the 90's alternative scene. This breakup theme continues in the album's first single "Chariots," a rhythmically interesting, yet ultimately sad song about the pain of a relationship ending. ("I'm chasing every shadow off the wall / I am caught in time / All these chemicals I take / Can't erase you from my mind / All of this tethered to a thought / I am holding here / If it's really what you want / Then I'll patiently prepare")
The following "Untitled" is a chill, coming down song, that floats through a haze of synthesizers and detached spooky vocal pleading with someone (a former lover perhaps) to "profess your love because a storm is at hand / take my hand." Or, perhaps it's the voice of the Lord pleading with the protagonist to take hold of something solid during his time of trial. The nearly instrumental "Blue Collar Daydream" continues this mood. It's a good series of songs, with a solid narrative, multiple angles and textures, and it's only the beginning quarter of the album.
Things pick up with the title track, and the narrator seems to have some perspective back when he wonders "how long will there be devotion to cloud my mind? It's real emotion killing me." "Mona Lisa" is another continuation of this theme, with the narrator seeming to be going through the stages of relationship grief, and landing here on bitterness ("You think you're Mona Lisa / You can't believe the irony now"). The following "Second Place" (a telling title), has several distinct movements within its four-and-a-half minute running time, and is followed by the upbeat "Laugh About It," where the narrator is in a lighter mood, but still melancholy. "Zhivago" (a title that sounds like an inside joke between lovers, or perhaps a reference to the classic book and film, Dr. Zhivago) finds the narrator in "kiss off" mode, telling his lover "look at all the love I've found."
The good news is that by the time the epic and grandiose "Balconies" rolls around, the narrator has found peace in surrender (to God, to the passing of the relationship), admitting "It's the simple things that I can't get right / And for every wound there's a hill to climb," but thank the Lord there's "grace enough to hold you and me." "Balconies" is a stunner of a song, and an emotional release for all the tension (the "real emotion") that has come before. Ending tracks "Love Is Red (With Every Shade Of Blue)" and "Vanisher" bring the album to a low-key ending, with the narrator coming to grips with "the bruises in our history / and friends that are becoming strangers."
Real Emotion is, in a few ways, like an electronic / alt rock version of the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes. It's a sad, thrilling, emotional and redemptive ride set to good storytelling, epic music and masterful songwriting, and quite possibly, the best album of the year.- Review date: 9/26/16, written by Alex Caldwell of Jesusfreakhideout.com
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