Every time I see I Was Totally Destroying It in a small room, I'm sure it will be the last - that the next time, they'll be in a venue worthy of their size and I'll be surrounded by a thousand other people who finally have figured it out. Lord knows IWTDI have the songs and the chops to bend an arena to their will. Vexations, their fourth album, sees them moving beyond their diverse influences and claiming their own musical territory.
Last year I wrote about IWTDI's previous release, Preludes, a patchwork quilt of songs into which the band had obviously put a great deal of effort, but which they intriguingly announced was a placeholder for yet another album, which they were holding back. With Vexations in hand, that strategy now makes sense. It's not that the songwriting is stronger - Preludes was chock full of singles in waiting that will undoubtedly feature in their set for a long time to come. This may be simply a matter of production (Vexations is the first time the band worked with outside producers), but it was easy to spend Preludes playing name-that-influence, from Jackson Browne to Metric and many points in between - Vexations turns the corner to a band sounding like itself.
The explicit thematic inspiration for Vexations is Stephen King's epic Dark Tower series, with which I am unfamiliar. Judging from these songs, though, the books feature a number of ghosts, more than a little blood, and a lingering existential uncertainty that inhabits both people and places - an uncertainty that at times is vague and mystical, and at other times holds real lives in the balance. Startlingly poetic lyrics lie in wait in the middle of songs: "My love is an enemy that I let back inside." "Truth is a mirror, and a secret can carry us home." "We hold the candles high to burden the sky."
The musical palette to express these ideas is diligent rock of varying thicknesses, and the ornamentation that could be distracting on Preludes is more organic here. There is great subtlety throughout: acoustic guitars played against electrics, understated keyboard parts, and unexpected fermatas give these songs humanity and warmth, playing in contrast to the bleakness of the lyrics.
An interesting facet of IWTDI's sound is the interplay of John and Rachel's vocals, which on many songs seem to be arranged as instruments as opposed to he-said she-said dynamics. This works particularly well because these are not character songs, so when the two trade back and forth in places and harmonize in others, it adds dimension to the material. Both are capable of a number of satisfying voices, and neither are inclined to show off.
At the show last night the band spoke of their excitement to finally share this album and their affection for this latest work. It's obvious why; Vexations practically compels multiple listenings and provides new rewards each time.