You may have been following the elitist fight currently underway between William Deresiewicz, an Ivy League-educated writer, and a handful of journalists from Newsweek and The New York Times. The topic at the center of their tussle? The Ivy League — whether or not it’s a beneficial (or even valid) gold standard to which youth should aspire. Deresiewicz claims that the eight private colleges foster a culture of line-toeing, systematically stamping out any curiosity or spirit of adventure and instead gifting Wall Street a few thousand brilliant, hollow minds every year. As a music writer, however, my instinct is to think about the cornucopia of different bands and musicians these institutions have produced: Bonnie Raitt, Vampire Weekend, Tom Morello, Dirty Projectors, The Low Anthem. I’d argue that most all of these artists have pushed up against the boundaries of their respective genres, whether because of a learned capacity to think beyond convention or a hard-wired idiosyncrasy.
The only band that, to a degree, may be playing into the “fear of failure” identified in the New Republic polemic is Bishop Allen. The Harvard-educated indie pop team of Justin Rice and Christian Rudder have returned with their fourth LP, Lights Out, and while it’s not an unpleasant listen, it’s not a particularly groundbreaking one, either. To be clear, their alma mater has very little to do with it in actuality, aside from providing rhetorical convenience. But on Lights Out, the band sounds hesitant to even test the waters, let alone their limits, delivering plush, deceptively summery songs that rest comfortably along a pop baseline yet rarely venture from it.
Given that his colleague is a regular genius of love (Rudder helped found the dating site OkCupid), it’s remarkable how often Rice has chosen to sing about anything but. This time, he’s also cleared away much of the solipsism that took desire’s place on 2009’s Grrr…, where characters misunderstood and aimlessly lived out a series of rooftop brawls and pseudo-beatnik epiphanies. Rice’s smugness still shows its face in spots — “If you want to tell me where it all went wrong/ I already know,” he sings on “Good Talk” with a wink — but he’s largely abandoned that affectation. Instead, Lights Out houses something far more grim, often transmitted via celestial imagery: near-Earth black holes that “tear the sky to pieces,” narrators waiting endlessly for a sun that’s “setting later than late,” not to mention the more traditionally foreboding “gathering drums” and “rattling chains” on the Cars-lite “Give It Back”.
The shtick here, of course, is the juxtaposition of lyrical doomsday with cheery keyboards and male-female harmonies. These songs are supposed to be at war with themselves, placid vocals aligning with major key instrumentals to make the darkness at the center seem utterly mismatched. It’s worked before on records like Passion Pit’s Gossamer, but that’s because their playing wasn’t nearly as bland as Bishop Allen’s is on Lights Out. This album’s hooks either hit or miss, and even when they hit, hackneyed synth burbles struggle to engage. “Bread Crumbs” is the best example: a forgettable piano melody that soon gives way to a sparse, uninteresting bounce, as Rice and his wife Darbie repeat “Breadcrumbs” and “Home” like twee zombies.
It’s not that Bishop Allen are wanting for words or edginess, since the next track, “No Conditions”, is all lyrical and visceral stunts. “Nothing and nowhere and no one is not a pretender/ But remember/ No surrender,” Rice commands, believably convoluted, as Rudder’s power pop guitar flares and barks. Then, with gently flanging textures underneath him: “Every test could be wrong/ Then again, every test could be right/ No way to be certain.” Speaking from on high, he’s still got beads of sweat collecting on his forehead. Rice is just as anxious as you are about all that uncertainty.
Unfortunately, his trepidation is palpable in more places than it should be. Bishop Allen play it safe beyond any level of broad appeal, which, after five years away, isn’t exactly the best way to mark a grand return. Lights Out offers plenty of pop nuggets — a few of them punchy and expansive, most others losing steam right out of the gate. None are inherently flawed, but maybe some weak spots would have been a fair trade to make for a few more attempted thrills. Deresiewicz’s words convey it most bluntly: Bishop Allen, like the Ivy League graduates he pities, are “smart, talented, and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose … heading meekly in the same direction.”
Essential Tracks: “Start Again”, “No Conditions”