Since releasing their first album in March 2008, These United States (TUS) have steadily pounded out three additional albums, each to the praise of most critics. What makes this more impressive is the band has so much going on musically, be it influences and in terms of sheer numbers of members. But their fourth album makes it perfectly clear how they work so efficiently: singer/frontman Jesse Elliott. With bits and chunks of country, rock, folk, the blues, and beyond, Elliott dominates this alt-country beast triumphantly, with his voice and lyricism readily on display throughout the entire LP.
Elliott has clearly made a career of constantly evolving the sound of his band. TUS’ second album, Crimes, was well received despite its musical departure from their debut and for its flirtation with psychedelia and huge lyrical themes (like name-dropping Dionysius and Don Quixote. On one track.) When Everything Touches Everything dropped in September 2009, it was praised for its lively, energetic sound and songs with deep, rich, and brilliantly woven lyrics. But with What Lasts, there’s not as huge of a departure from album No. 3. What has changed, though, is there seems to be some purposeful holding back on many of the tracks. The album begins and more or less closes out with a few somber numbers, like the opening “Nobody Can Tell”, a hyperactive, overly dramatic song full of nervous energy, or the near-album-closing title track, a six-minute instrumental of pure loss.
Thankfully, the whole shebang picks up by “One You Believe”, a more upbeat ode to ’60s rock with that jagged as broken glass guitar line that takes solace in a simplistic literary device of counting all the ways his woman has hurt him. Coupled with “Just This”, a slow dance of a piece that lyrically reads like good coffee house poetry (“I know you dreamt of something else, but this is what we have. One last faint flash, this is what we got”), and you begin to get an idea of the intent of the album. By doing away with a lot of the crazed passion, replacing instead with more of the dignified lose, humiliation, and heartache of true Southern rock, you get a better grasp of the depth behind the words, the feeling of loneliness and quiet dignity in Elliott’s voice.
Where their last album was all about the joys of being alive, this latest effort informs that eager glee with a dose of optimistic realism. “Life&Death She&I” sounds like it belongs in the backroom of a shiny honky-tonk, with the refrain that Elliot’s “bidding his time until I die.” A profound and potentially depressing moment becomes a revelation, with the rhythm picking up pace as Elliot’s pained voice reflects a newfound sense of happiness regarding his fate and his commitment to enjoy his remaining days. Working with the same kind of formula of sugar-coated cynicism, “Ever Make You Mine” is a piano-heavy, bluesy little existential muse on love and what it takes for it to stay (or to begin in the first place.)
Despite the ups and downs both emotionally and sonically, the album ends with one raucous good time of sheer explosive energy that is “Water and Wheat”. It’s got the powder keg dynamic, lots of effects and noises, and ends like a ride out of town during a freaky sunset. Leaving on a high note seems like such a TUS thing to do, but more than that, it shows Elliott and company’s dedication to everything rock has to offer and readies the listener blaze a trail to songs that will be bigger and better, more overjoyed and increasingly soul-crushing, and always, always straight up rocking. For TUS, nothing lasts, everything lasts, and none of it really makes a difference.