After Maritime’s opening set for American Football at Lincoln Hall earlier this year, Mike Kinsella remarked how the band’s music sounds like Taylor Swift’s. The crowd laughed. “I’m serious,” he told them, making it clear that he meant it as a compliment.
Kinsella was right. While Davey von Bohlen’s endearing, lisped warble is a far cry from Swifty’s more straightforward, radio-friendly vocals, both artists share a sharpened pop sensibility, despite coming from (and catering to) very different worlds. There’s a reason why von Bohlen’s legacy act The Promise Ring covered Adele’s “Rumour Has It” on A.V. Undercover (where Kinsella shared drum duties with Dan Didier, it’s worth noting). It’s the same reason he drives the “sing me something that I know” montage on Jimmy Eat World’s “A Praise Chorus”, rattling off lines heard in everything from Madness’ “Our House” to Mötley Crüe’s “Kickstart My Heart”. Above all else, the man values a good hook.
He’s adept at finding them, too, as evidenced by Maritime’s first four records, particularly their second and third efforts, We, the Vehicles and Heresy and the Hotel Choir. But like Swift, von Bohlen’s quest for catchiness has sometimes led to filler — and when pop doesn’t pop, it comes up empty. In that vein, Magnetic Bodies/Maps of Bones falls into the same category as Maritime’s 2004 debut, Glass Floor, and their last record, Human Hearts: It’s an LP of several great songs surrounded by several just okay ones.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the strongest tunes are the ones that break away from von Bohlen’s time-tested grab-and-jangle formula. Sure, there’s an undeniable wiriness to Dan Hinz’s guitar on lead single “Light You Up”, but Magnetic Bodies’ other best tracks tend to stand out by slowing down. Thanks to its moderate beat, opener “Nothing is Forgot” has plenty of space for exploration, revealing a stomp that becomes all the more powerful as the band starts and stops in unison between each verse and chorus. It’s a subtle trick, but when each musician locks into the double quarter notes of Didier’s snare, the song takes on a new kind of power. The tightly coiled rhythm also puts some of von Bohlen’s best one-liners at front and center: “What wakes you up in the night?/ Metaphor scenes or actual things?” would make a great opening line for a novel. Or a really good pop song.
Much later, “Love You In the Dark” grants the listener a similar amount of breathing room. The acoustic guitar stays solid and steady, so that the lead can dance around it with angular beauty — no small feat for a mid-tempo song that would otherwise be fairly cut and dry. That beauty becomes all the more stirring when von Bohlen pledges to love whoever he’s talking to under any circumstance, especially one that involves the walls of age closing in as we all get older.
That’s Magnetic Bodies‘ other great strength: a sense of waning mortality. Von Bohlen has been building on this theme since 2001, when a benign but still very scary tumor was removed from his brain. It was then that his lyrics suddenly went from emotional to corporeal, his preoccupations with insecurity and romance suddenly viewed through a more anatomical microscope. Just look at some of Maritime’s album titles: We, the Vehicles, Human Hearts, and now, Magnetic Bodies/Maps of Bones. Each record (not to mention the songs contained within) builds upon the idea of our feelings being intangible and perhaps eternal, even though they’re imprisoned inside the disposable shell of organs, muscles, and a skeleton. Humans are meat. Humans are matter. But in von Bohlen’s words, that doesn’t mean that what’s inside him and the rest of us won’t be able to one day transcend the physical realm.
So when the guitars and synths of “War Tattoos”, “Collar Bones”, and “Inside Out” wander aimlessly in search of their gimmick, I at least appreciate the frailty and triumph implied by their lyrics. Celebrating the cosmic nature of emotions while still recognizing the physical vulnerability of human beings takes empathy — something that’s not always easy to come by in indie rock these days. And if Maritime’s ever able to put out a record where every song balances soul, science, and — most importantly — a killer hook, they’ll have obtained the holy grail of modern music: the perfect pop album.
Essential Tracks: “Nothing is Forgot”, “Light You Up”, and “Love You in the Dark”