The Polyphonic Spree’s fourth studio record is called Yes, It’s True, but I’m not quite sure that they believe in it. At the end of track four, a canned radio voice interrupts the Dallas ensemble’s symphonic bombast: ”Ah, yes. The sounds of the ’70s from The Polyphonic Spree.” For a moment, the album acknowledges its own referentiality to ’70s psych-rock and its later revivals, but the admission never ties into any larger point. Queens of the Stone Age scattered scrapes of dial-twiddling throughout Songs for the Deaf, but those interludes became a running gag — with a clear target. Tim DeLaughter and two dozen of his closest friends aren’t taking aim at Clear Channel. So why the self-effacing joke?
The album is the follow-up to a live recording of the Spree covering the Rocky Horror Picture Show soundtrack in its entirety. The two institutions in many ways are a perfect fit. Both Rocky and The Polyphonic Spree embrace camp and spectacle. Both are probably better known for their outfits than their songs. And both seem to inspire cult-like gatherings of people who show up to sing along unburdened for an hour and a half. Formed after the untimely death of DeLaughter’s bandmate in Tripping Daisy, The Polyphonic Spree became a vessel for the kind of hopeful exuberance that can grow out of mourning. More of a phenomenon than a band, the Spree might still be known best for the songs that turned the heads of filmmakers like Michel Gondry — and perhaps for tipping off the Canadians that a music group could include just about everyone you know.
DeLaughter’s boundless optimism found a home among fans who shared his vague straining toward utopia. But the Spree’s musical charms — its textured psychedelia, stadium orchestration, and catapulting hooks — fall conspicuously flat on Yes, It’s True. Opener “You Don’t Know Me” rumbles in on bass thieved from The Dandy Warhols, revving up to the same light, porous pop that started to get tired around Welcome to the Monkey House. Soon enough, DeLaughter’s serving his first helping of word salad: “There’s always more to you than there are of them.”
Way too much of Yes, It’s True sounds like self-help lit shoved through Google Translate. While DeLaughter’s lyrics have never quite rippled with nuance, he can usually drive home even the most vanilla platitudes. He always sounds like he means it, like Pat Jr. in Silver Linings Playbook smoldering with the insistence of someone who has to hold tight to slogans to survive. It’s frustrating now to hear DeLaughter pouring that inexhaustible conviction into lines that are either plain bad (“Straitjackets become the new style”) or just nonsensical (“No beauty when oxygen cries”). Clumsy references to social media somehow weigh lovesick cliches further down into the dregs, even though this is my first time hearing the word “Instagram” in a song outside of that Fat Joe song.
The words aren’t the only thin part of the record. The Spree’s knack for melody sweetens most of their albums, but on Yes, It’s True the choruses map themselves onto obvious, sing-songy patterns. “Popular By Design” climaxes with playground chants, while “Hold Yourself Up” could have been composed by a toddler running up and down a flight of musical stairs.
Some songs, like “Carefully Try”, feel earnest, but not in new ways. At its best, Yes, It’s True goes places that were well-mapped by The Flaming Lips nearly a decade ago. The Spree doesn’t quite get to breathe the way it does on its better albums. This album was made by twenty-two people, but most songs could be performed by one guy at a piano and a couple of stranded session musicians. The horns, which are as everywhere as glitter, sound like outtakes from Illinois.
What’s weird is that DeLaughter himself hasn’t lost his ability to write great songs. The sorely undersung debut from side project Preteen Zenith boasted moments that echoed Tripping Daisy at its brightest, moving from mild acoustic musings to full-on sonic orgasms. DeLaughter still has ideas left in him — he’s just putting them into other bands. Unlike Rubble Guts & BB Eye, Yes, It’s True never surprises itself with its own excitement. DeLaughter is at his best when he’s totally losing his shit — wailing with the kind of exhausted joy that a recording studio can’t cage. He doesn’t get to escape himself on Yes, It’s True. He just goes through the motions.
The Polyphonic Spree have always been tirelessly life-affirming, and there’s definitely still space for that kind of sunniness in pop. But Yes, It’s True calls into question exactly what kind of life this group is affirming. Is it the glibly self-referential life implied by that radio announcer’s interruption? Maybe the love that needs to be described with references to Facebook isn’t the kind we need right now.
Essential Tracks: The ones on Rubble Guts & BB Eye.