There are bands that naturally decline over time, and then there are bands that fall off with such speed and determination you wonder if they ever even had a grasp on their own appeal. In the wake of Band of Horses’ breakout 2006 debut Everything All the Time, Ben Bridwell did all he could to make sure its magic couldn’t be replicated, first by stripping the group of all other original members, and then by shifting away from spikey, Pacific Northwest indie rock in favor of mellow, Southern-hued country rock. That reinvention might have been more tolerable if they’d had another showstopper like “The Funeral” in them, but as 2010’s major label debut Infinite Arms and 2012’s Mirage Rock made stubbornly clear, this band no longer did anthems.
No other marquee indie act of their era seemed as eager to abandon what made them so beloved in the first place. Yet recently Bridwell has been more open about admitting that, yeah, he probably lost the plot for a while. Produced by Grandaddy’s Jason Lytle, 2016’s Why Are You OK was the band’s most overtly “indie” record since their time on Sub Pop, although it was too fussy and self-consciously experimental to recreate the uncomplicated pleasures of their early records. Things Are Great avoids that high-minded trap. Recorded after yet another lineup change, it’s evidence of how intrinsically likable this band can still be, a back-to-basics record without the sense of retreat that term usually implies.
Alongside assists from Lytle and Dave Fridmann, who give these songs the expected heft, Bridwell co-produced Things Are Great himself with intentions of honoring the band’s rough edges. As Bridwell now explains it, he had previously tried to disguise his own untrained playing by employing seasoned musicians and expensive studios. In the process, he sanded over some of the impulsivity and odd tunings that made their early output so alluring. “Looking back I realize the way I played guitar was the main identity of the band,” he says.
There’s something unsatisfying about that explanation, especially the idea that, all this time, another good Band of Horses album was just one a-ha moment and flip of the switch away. Yet Things Are Great supports his claims, delivering on all the qualities that carried the band’s first couple of records: soaring emotions, crunchy guitars, the unabashed stickiness of Bridwell’s cotton-candy whine.
The album’s title is sarcastic, as Things Are Great makes clear right off the bat on “Warning Signs,” which opens the album with Bridwell in the midst of a medical and mental crisis. “Small talk with a registered nurse/Not to cry in front of people at work/Well that’s hard, hard, hard,” he sings, his unsteady yowl never sounding more like Built to Spill’s Doug Martsch. The music, too, has re-embraced Built to Spill’s sense of dishevelment, that belief that disorderly feelings call for similarly untidy songs.