Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros are known for their upbeat, participatory music. The latest album, their first since Jade Castrinos’ departure from the band, PersonA will no doubt polarize fans as a solemn and self-reflective album. The artwork for this record — a painting by Christian Letts — is overlaid with the text “Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros,” the “Edward Sharpe and” crossed out in the style of a spray-painted line, as if to say that version of the band is dead. Not erased, but edited. The commune, it would seem, is now truly communal, without a leader, or perhaps the birth of vocalist Alex Ebert’s daughter and the departure of a founding member led to an existential transformation. It certainly feels that way sonically.
The group has been known to cite specific and historical musical threads throughout their albums. Here (2012) explored the call and response in roots and gospel while maintaining their signature hippie sound where it counted. PersonA attempts ancient rhythmic trance on tracks like “Wake Up the Sun”. Musically somber, the album as a whole approaches love in conflict, being fed up with organized religion of all kinds, arresting imagery, and personal strife. This is the first record written in its entirety by the ten-person group as a whole.
The band became festival favorites almost instantly with the release of their first album, Up From Below, and each project since that airy ’60s record has branched into a more confident songwriting direction. In comparison to that sweetness, PersonA feels downtrodden. It’s clear that Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros (or just The Magnetic Zeros?) want to be transparent and truthful about the meaning behind these songs. “Lullabye” is written for Ebert’s daughter, sporting hymnal piano and Ebert’s low register. The tone reads as sadness rather than a calming lull, especially heard as Ebert grapples with parenthood: “If only I could protect you from me/ If only, but I fear it will be my fault/ If ever my dear you act adult.”
Yes, there is one song particularly aimed at discussing Castrinos, as mentioned specifically by Ebert at the band’s recent show at Old Town School of Folk in Chicago. “Perfect Time” holds divisive imagery, clearly outlining a complicated relationship or picture of a person. “Whatever colors you wear/ Oh, they gonna bleed some day,” he sings. “Some rainbow day/ We’ll have the perfect time.” It gets across a general tone, but anyone looking for specifics should look elsewhere.
There’s an upswing thanks to the tracks that bookending the record, “Hot Coal” and “No Love Like Yours”. The latter boasts signature whimsical, layered harmonies, quick but deliberate percussion, and breathy guitars. While the attitude and arrangement marks a more serious turn for the band, the message is still one of hope, with love at the center of everything. Whether that “love” is of the human kind or cosmic kind, well, that’s up to the listener.
All that said, Ebert and co.’s signature sound is still here, just a little lower on the register. Although this is a solid step towards solidifying an already tight presentation, it could go deeper. There is still a disconnect between Ebert’s philosophy of childlike adventurousness and community-building and the songs themselves. On stage, a great deal of time and effort is made to connect with the audience, making for an enjoyable camaraderie in the moment. The challenge for the band now is crafting a record that somehow captures that feeling with the music alone.
Essential Tracks: “Hot Coal”, “No Love Like Yours”