Following in the wake of their majorly successful single, Trojans (2011), and EP Through the Glass (2011), Atlas Genius finally adds a full album to their repertoire with When It Was Now. Made up of three brothers—Keith, Michael and Steven Jeffery (on vocals and guitar, drums and bass respectively)—and keyboardist Darren Sell, this South Australian band considers themselves reminiscent of Death Cab, The Police and Beck.
After listening to their debut album, however, I cannot begin to hear where they get that idea; although maybe sonically similar to Death Cab, I heard no ounce of Beck’s perfected raggedness or The Police’s poignant attention to innovation.
The album opens with “Electric,” a track that, admittedly, got my foot tapping. Although it is perhaps a strange place to start, this tune is arguably one of the stronger ones of the set. The hyper-produced use of synths and drum kits foreground what’s expected to follow as a similarly futuristic, digitalized collection of songs.
However as the second track (and the album’s single), “If So” begins, we are lurched from this “Electronic” world, back into a more traditional build-up—one with manufactured compositions and redundant lyrics (I lost track of how many times he sang, “If so, we know we’ll be coming.”). Some kind of bridge between these styles is needed. The third, “Back Seat,” does a decent job of stringing together the musical ideas of its two predecessors; it integrates much more solidly the synthesized with the non-, and takes the listener to a more poppy place.
Their hit, “Trojans” is slipped in fourth, as a sort of a last ditch effort to convince any hesitant listener to stay around; “Hey, remember how good this one song we did a few years ago was?” it seems to say. Following this comfort tune, though, we are brought back to new material and, after a while, it all starts to sound the same.
Although tunes are distinguishable from each other in some regards (“Through the Glass” has handclaps and “Symptoms” has an acoustic background), when listening, I got to the point where I lost all objectivity (not in a good way) and felt as though mere variations on the same song were being played over and over. Some may call this sensation a “concept album” but here, I call it “not being able to get out of a constant compositional rut.”
The lyrics throughout the album are woefully mundane—the ones from “On a Day” summed it up well for me: “Turn around but we don’t change direction, another step and we’ll all be on our way.” I felt like I was listening to bad poetry from a whiny, over-privileged 9th grader. Melodic lines were similarly underwhelming; throughout the entirety of the title track, “When It Was Now,” although I was jiving on the instrumentation, I couldn’t help but notice that the vocalist stayed on the same note 90% of the time.
It’s their first major release and for that I commend them; there were definitely some glimpses of great musicianship and composition throughout the album. However, I wish they pulled through a little more with the innovations of the first piece by maybe scrapping half of the more safe songs, spending a few more months in the studio and going out on a limb to really define and differentiate themselves, instead of hiding in the contrived and over-played shadows of their style’s predecessors.
Rating: W ½
Songs to listen to: Electronic, Back Seat, Trojans
Listen if you like: Death Cab, Walk the Moon, Grouplove
Listen to Trojans below: