There are more than a few songs in the indie canon about that place where nothing can bother you, the physical space that acts as creative muse and comfort. A notable one is Weezer’s “In the Garage”, the KISS and X-Men poster-plastered place where Rivers Cuomo can feel safe and sing his songs. While previous Band of Horses records favored grandiose stabs at epic, pastoral, southern rock, the opener to their new album immediately grounds them in that kind of songwriting sweet spot: “Filthy room/ Guitars out of tune,” Ben Bridwell coos through a golden psych-tinged haze. “Home is where you are/ Home is where the heart is.” After writing tunes in backwoods isolation, the frontman is now a father to four young children, and he sank into a converted garage studio when not taking care of them to write the songs for Why Are You OK They reflect the appropriate amount of homely warmth, for better and for worse.
A major factor for Bridwell’s writing this time around was excising any vagaries and cliches in his lyrics. To do so, he has to walk the difficult line of inspecting the theoretically mundane realities of everyday life, fine-tuning domestic tales through the pastoral scope that drives the Band of Horses formula. Something as simple as the album cover gets to that point, the first of the band’s records to feature humans (though covering their faces) rather than a grand landscape or image of the sky.
That’s not to say this one’s all familial bliss. “Casual Party” describes a frustration with making small talk and wanting to run away from a shitty party — though, to be fair, the place he wants to flee to is revealed at the last second to be back home, rather than a rock and roll adventure. Home is the reward too on “Whatever, Wherever”, the pleasure of love at the end of the long hard road. “Throw My Messes” deals with getting wasted and paranoid, though in the warmest jangle possible.
The problem with finding inspiration in your own garage is that sometimes the weight of those posters start to weigh down on the tunes themselves. A lot of the press for this record came from the fact that the band recorded with Grandaddy’s Jason Lytle at the helm, Rick Rubin’s listed as executive producer, and J. Mascis joins in for a tune. There are shades of Grandaddy’s ramshackle margin-jamming (field recordings, squiggly lo-fi synths), though it’d be unfair to say they give over entirely to Lytle’s impulses. Their nostalgia rises up to meet Mascis on the sublime “In a Drawer”, fitting his sweet, low tones in between high harmonies and a five-star indie pop hook. While Rubin likely wasn’t standing over Lytle’s shoulder during the recording process, the record’s slick cohesion could well have to do with his big label backing. Sweet surf, ‘90s indie guitar jangle, and ‘70s AM radio rock all coalesce in a unified slab.
Even if all those big names cast big shadows, the beating heart of Why Are You OK is clearly Bridwell and his ability to write charmingly massive indie rock hooks. The tear-jerking “Barrel House” opens as simply as imaginable: a two-note guitar riff and then Bridwell’s notes about “Shifting the chair on the porch/ For a better position to enjoy the warmth/ Of the sun.” Somehow that transitions to “Oh, the heart of a man” at the blink of an eye. Yet his homespun beauty makes it believable; the simplicity of a man, woman, cat, and dog out on the porch cracks open the whole world, and Bridwell stitches it all together with needle and thread. Though it sometimes gets lost in its own sleepy sweetness, Why Are You OK finds just enough of those grand moments of simplicity.
Essential Tracks: “In a Drawer”, “Dull Times/The Moon”, and “Barrel House”