Never say Casey Crescenzo lacks ambition. If this guy had been in the control room for NASA’s lunar mission, he would’ve been griping about how we weren’t thinking “big” enough. The Providence-based songwriter is the self-styled Proust of prog rock. If he’s so vain, it’s because the song is about him, though what it’s really about is the aporia of existence and the cyclical nature of life, etc., etc.
Restraint might not be Crescenzo’s strong suit, and he’s probably not moving any records with his sense of humor. But six albums into his career as The Dear Hunter, he’s right where he feels most comfortable: in the middle of an epic album cycle that explores the birth, life, and eventual death of his navel-gazing nom de guerre.
When we last left off in summer 2009, The Dear Hunter’s overarching narrative had just reached the conclusion of Act III. That’s three full albums dedicated to the convoluted story of a boy who comes of age in the early years of the 20th century, with three more still to go. Before picking up with Act IV, however, Crescenzo stepped away from his magnum opus to focus on writing another concept project, a series of nine EPs about the color spectrum. Some musicians choose cocaine as their preferred drug. Crescenzo might be the first to develop a genuine addiction to big-picture rock records. Even 2013’s Migrant, the first non-conceptual album in the Dear Hunter catalog, feels like a grandiose production. Crescenzo described it as a “slightly more stripped-down” record, but that’s like calling a humpback slightly smaller than a blue whale.
Whether you love or loathe The Dear Hunter will likely depend on factors bigger than one album, or even six. Like The Mars Volta, Coheed and Cambria, and other modern acts that fly the prog flag, this isn’t a band for those who seek out rock music for its simple, visceral pleasures. The stakes on a Dear Hunter record are high as heaven, and Crescenzo genuinely sounds like he’s trying to squeeze more out of his talents with each outing.
This much holds true on Act IV: Rebirth in Reprise, the long-awaited continuation of the six-album concept series that began in 2006. If the complexity of Crescenzo’s songwriting has grown by leaps and bounds over the past decade, so has his fans’ eagerness to extract a coherent story from his lyrics. Online forums overflow with musings on The Dear Hunter’s hero (or anti-hero — we’re never quite sure), and it seems the band’s mythos has benefited from the internet culture it has evolved alongside.
All of this obscures the fact that Crescenzo is far more interesting as a musician than as a lyricist. His “story” is too often hindered by vague, flowery language and one-dimensional characters saddled with names like Ms. Terri and Ms. Leading (get it!?). We’ll leave the more narrative aspects of Act IV to annotation sites, which seem to have been made for highly textual bands like The Dear Hunter. Suffice it to say there’s some batshit stuff going on here, though much of what happens in the protagonist’s story is rooted in Crescenzo’s own life. Here’s the dirty secret: Strip away the concept, and you’re not really losing all that much.
As far as the actual music goes, Crescenzo has never sounded more willing to take chances. The results are sometimes strange, sometimes thrilling, and sometimes both. A title like Rebirth in Reprise suggests that repetition can be a cleansing or purifying act, but Crescenzo doesn’t sound like he’s moving in circles here. He throws the whole damn sink into opener “Rebirth”, which transitions from a choral invocation into a chamber waltz with a flick of the maestro’s wrist.
Crescenzo enlisted Bay Area musicians the Awesöme Orchestra for this chapter of his tale, and he sure gets his money’s worth. They steal the show on “Rebirth” and lend a snappy, swinging rhythm to the epic centerpiece “A Night on the Town”, making it feel shorter than its interminable nine minutes. Aside from texture, the orchestral arrangements add a crucial sense of time and place. Act IV is supposed to take place in the early 20th century, and the horns especially evoke the Jazz Age. It’s a good look for The Dear Hunter, a band that’s always relied heavily on atmospheric elements but has never sounded as confident in their tools as they do here.
In some ways, Act IV is the most ambitious entry in the series yet. It’s also among the more accessible. Tucked into all that prog silliness are some successful standalone pop songs. “Waves” is a pretty, contemplative rock ballad that takes its cues from the anthemic folk rock that’s blossomed in the years since Act III. The song’s soaring guitar line is reminiscent of Icelandic indie rockers Of Monsters and Men, and its lush production is typical of the genre. “The Squeaky Wheel” is more of a conventional piano rocker, but its subtle variations remain interesting throughout, and Crescenzo’s voice shines at the front of the mix.
Other cross-genre stabs at pop accessibility don’t work out quite so well. “King of Swords (Reversed)” is powered by a disco beat that feels anachronistic at best and cheesy at worst. Not even Crescenzo has the power to bring disco back.
In fact, the back half of Act IV — pretty much everything that follows the three-part continuation of “The Bitter Suite” — features more stumbles than outright triumphs. It’s most successful in its quiet moments, like the acoustic ballad “The Line”, which chronicles a relationship fading and fizzling. In this way, the song calls back to “Waves” and suggests that there’s something cyclical about the album’s sequencing. It’s too bad that “The Line” is followed by the murky “Wait”, whose existential lyrics (“Will I ever know heaven or hell/ Or is eternity something worse?”) want to hit hard but don’t carry the same immediacy as a simple love song. At moments like these, Crescenzo sounds like he’s merely playacting at profundity, or at least reading a little too much Nietzsche.
For all of its many excesses, Act IV basically represents Crescenzo at the height of his powers, and fans will likely eat it up, digest it, regurgitate it, and sidle back up to the table for another helping. As for the uninitiated? That depends on the sensitivity of your bullshit meter. There will always be people who want more from rock music than music. They want literature, mystery, capital-M Meaning. They want the hand of God in the grooves of the vinyl. Crescenzo is fun because he’s down to take on that impossible role of savior. Whether it all amounts to a car crash or a meteor shower, give him this: We can’t look away.
Essential Tracks: “Waves”, “A Night on the Town”, and “The Line”