So, walking a line between being a reviewer/critic and being a fan is not easy, and it’s something I’ve always tried to balance. I’ve always tried to separate my favorite stuff from stuff that might be the “technical” best, but I’ve also never been afraid to admit being a fan of something or of a particular artist. At the end of the day, I am both, and there are times that call for both–when I reviewed John Moreland, I had to be a critic and acknowledge the greatness in the songwriting even if it might not be relatable to everyone, and when I reviewed the latest Zac Brown Band album, I wrote as a fan who had mixed feelings about their return to their roots. With the Eli Young Band, I think it is right to write as an unashamed Eli Young Band fan, a fan who did like their early Texas sound better but was admittedly happy with them right up until the God-awful Turn it On EP. I was just hoping they’d get back to themselves with this release and stop chasing trends–and they said openly that they went into this record responding to songs that fans resonated with the most, so credit to them for that. So now, as a fan, did this album resonate with me and take the band back to their sound that I grew to love?
Well, it did in places. IN fact, overall, I think the Eli Young Band went in completely the right direction with this, and it’s probably that benefit of the doubt that makes this a 6 rather than a 5 because honestly, of these eleven tracks, I enjoy five of them and could do without six. But there’s nothing inherently awful in the other six, it’s just that they’re bland and mediocre, and Eli Young Band is capable of releasing better. It’s the strength in the promising half that outshines the mediocrity in the rest, and that’s what I want to focus on.
So, the album starts out strong with “Saltwater Gospel” and “Fingerprints.” Admittedly, I was not a “Saltwater Gospel” apologist when I first heard it, but I’ll freely acknowledge I was wrong; the message here is more clever than I gave it credit for, pointing out that you can be close to God on the beach or out in nature without going to church. I really have no idea why I objected to this before because this is pretty much my entire philosophy on the subject, but I’m here for it now. “Fingerprints” is a sex song, more specifically a sex song between two people in a troubled relationship or perhaps exes, that can’t let go; it’s the writing and more so the production in this that make it stand out. There’s something intense about the production that just adds to this and makes it really interesting. And then, well, basically there’s almost nothing noteworthy for eight tracks. I make no exaggeration here when I say that the first time I listened to this album, it was late at night, and I nearly fell asleep here–and the only reason I didn’t was the wonderful “Skin and Bones” breaking up the boredom here. This is a very nice love song; the woman is literally a part of him, “she’s in my skin and bones.” There’s some very nuanced and thoughtful writing in this as well; it’s impressive. I can’t stress enough that when these songs are good, they’re pretty awesome. So anyway, then it’s back to bland and sleepy for awhile until we get to the last two, “God Love the Rain” and “The Days I Feel Alone.” The former is another sex song, this time of the tender variety, detailing a night spent waiting out a storm. The chorus here cleverly uses “she” to talk about both the woman and the rain to say things like “she’ll heal your heart, feed your soul, cover you, and make you grow, bring you back to life, and wash away the pain. God love the rain.” Carolyn Dawn Johnson is featured here–yes, I didn’t know she was still around either, what a cool thing to discover–and she adds something special to it. Normally, I prefer duets to feature both artists more–well, to be fair, this is not credited as a duet–but the gentle harmony she brings to this track says more than giving her a verse. “The Days I Feel Alone” deals with life on the road and the pressures of the distance in relationships; this one is another highlight and is said to be a personal one for Mike Eli. I do probably have some bias toward this because I can relate to a good chunk of it, but it’s one I enjoyed.
Now, let’s talk about all those sleepy tracks for a moment. I said I gave this a 6 because there’s nothing downright awful there, just bland. “Old Songs” was going for a nice, nostalgic feel, and “Never Again” was going for another “Fingerprints,” but it ended up being a more pop-infused and less interestingly written version. “Once” was going for a nice theme too, saying that a man can only make some mistakes one time before he loses the woman. There are glimpses of potential even on these bland tracks, and while I still stand by my earlier comment that the Eli Young Band is capable of much better–indeed, there’s much better on this record–they’re certainly headed in the right direction.
This record is both a disappointment and a relief to me as an Eli Young Band fan. It’s disappointing because it’s not a triumphant return to their early days, and in that respect, it reminds me 100% of ZBB’s album. However, it’s a relief because the Eli Young Band strayed arguably much farther off their path than ZBB, and I’ll just be brutally honest here and say I had little hope of them returning. So it’s nice to see some good, and even great songs here, and it’s cool to see them listening to their fans and trying to go back to something with more substance. I won’t lie and say they succeeded throughout the record, but this is significant progress for the Eli Young Band, and there are some standout moments here too that have me hopeful for their future.