Physical Thrills 2LP
(New Machine Recordings)
In listening to Physical Thrills, the first thing which becomes self-evident is just how great a success 2019’s Widow’s Weeds (Silversun Pickups’ fifth studio album) was, and how great a financial and creative reward it yielded for the band. Clearly emboldened by that success, Physical Thrills represents an enormous departure for Silversun Pickups; where they once made the most of smaller sounds and used a sense of intimacy and a sense of urgency to deliver them, the band now presents itself as a genuinely impressive force. With a double album’s amount of power, Silversun Pickups hit listeners with an imposing and unrelenting wall of sound which feels completely fresh and features an immediacy that is absolutely infectious. After “Stillness (Way Beyond)” sets spines to tingling in its opening seconds with some gently arpeggiated acoustic guitar, listeners are hit with that aforementioned wave of sighing vocals, spattering drums and deep bass tone which simply cannot help but feel overwhelming. The catharsis in that introduction is evident too – but then the sound parts and singer/guitarist Brian Aubert slips in smoothly and mirrors the tone of the instruments with the words, “I know I’ve got to see this through/ Unsure if I can pull it off/ It’s really going to leave a lasting mark/ I guess that’s just what others do.”
There simply has not been a better/stickier/hookier first introduction for an album in recent memory than that. And when the bass follows it, even if there was an escape available for listeners to take, none would make any move toward it. They’ll just be held like a deer in headlights as the song moves along with an understated menace (“This goes way beyond a chill”) to a peak at about the 3:30 mark which feels as though it’s about to boil over – but the song just continues to seethe along showing listeners mercy and so , causing them to come along with it – starry-eyed.
After that first tortured movement, the theme spontanteously shifts to something far sunnier in sound with “Sticks and Stones” which makes the most of a twitchy bass line, nimble drumming and a startlingly breezy vocal melody before shifting that form into a more psychologically tormented focus for “Hereafter (Way After).” There, Aubert turns the color of his vocals – as well as the focus of the song’s lyric sheet – down a few shades for a more disconcerting, worrisome form; he nearly hisses lines like, “When you take me, I won’t go/ Hesitation overload/ Bodies break with sticks and stones/ Incinerate or I won’t go,” and the song seems to grow more pernicious with each passing bar.
…And after some pleas and questioning about whether the object of Aubert’s affection will stay backed by some compositional forms which sound like they might have been inspired by The Cure, the song and the side both end. The brevity of the play on the A-side is genuinely surprising (three songs, clocking in at fourteen minutes?), but it will easily spur listeners onward.
As soon as the B-side begins, listeners’ eyes will definitely widen in surprise as the stuttering, mechanical sound which opens “Dream At Tempo 050” opens the running and, for some, may recall the sounds of a dozen horror movies before downshifting into an introspective, Portishead-esque space. The tones take on a twilight hue as Nikki Moninger steals the mic and tells listeners that she’ll see them on the other side before doubling back with the words, “I’m beginning to regret it – just forget it.” Listeners will be able to recognize that what they’re hearing is a dramatically different sound from what they heard on the album’s A-side, and that contrast adds a new, dramatic and exciting depth and dimension to the album. That depth is further explored as “Scared Together” gets far more conventionally rocky (complete with some of the best use of an envelope filter since the Nineties) but that energy immediately recoils after just three and a half minutes when “Scared Together” lets out and “Alone On A Hill” returns to the band’s introspective comfort zone. Now, there’s no question that “Alone On A Hill” is a fine song, but something about that recoil combined with lyrics which talk a lot about “course correction” may leave a sour taste in listeners’ collective mouths. It’s almost as though Silversun Pickups know exactly where they want to be, but aren’t sure how to reach that destination smoothly.
Happily, the opening of the album’s C-side sees Silversun Pickups powering through and just moving forward. The rockier “Hidden Moon” sees producer Butch Vig incorporating that rock power which was in “Scared Together” in a stronger, more assertive way, and that strength holds up really well through “System Error” (where Aubert combines the heat he’s generating in the song with a desire to “paint pictures with gasoline”) and into “Empty Nest” – which sees Silversun Pickups getting really comfortable with the role of being a superstar level band (there feels like there are flecks of U2 here) before really pushing themselves and their energy reserves to bring “Dream At Tempo 310” well over the top and close out the side.
As good and even inspiring as the C-side of Physical Thrills is, it’s almost entertaining how succinct it is, as well. Listeners will find that the C-side of the album is the most bombastic collection of cuts by far – but the side is also only about fifteen minutes in duration. Now, of course, the strength of these cuts will have listeners rushing to their turntables to flip the proverbial disc and renew the play – but some listeners will also curse the side’s brevity as they’re doing so.
After the bombastic spectacle exhibited by the C-side of the album, the D-side of Physical Thrills settles right down again as soon as stylus catches groove. The opening cut on the D-side, “We Won’t Come Out,” effortlessly catches listeners’ hearts with some deserved romance as sonorous guitars sail in, but they’ll be shocked when the song’s tempo suddenly changes (around two and a half minutes into the song’s running, it is the greatest, most propulsive bass line on the whole album) and turns the cut into something genuinely epic. When that happens, listeners will begin to notice every hard stop, every hard feeling and every sizzling guitar in the song – and all of them are not to be missed. The power of “We Won’t Come Out” makes it an essential moment, and it informs “System Down (Way Down)” perfectly – that’s where Brian Aubert really bares his teeth for the first time on the album – even if it is to just pant, “I’m never gonna leave my room.”
The spirit of closure in “System Down (Way Down)” continues through the petulantly-paced “Quicksand” (where Aubert mopes about being locked in a dream from which he can not awaken) before closing out the record dramatically with the occasionally pitch-wobbled (for effect) dramatism of “Dream At Tempo 150.” Calling that very produced end a satisfying one may be a greater reach than some listeners will find themselves capable of making but, overall, it’s impossible not to be left with a warm and satisfied feeling in the pit of one’s stomach, when the needle lift from the album a final time. That feeling will inspire listeners to take repeated listens from Physical Thrills, and they’ll be happy they passed through, every time they make the trip. There are moments along the way which feel unlikely, but every pass through Physical Thrills will give listeners a great sensation, generously. [Bill Adams]
The Physical Thrills 2LP is out now on New Machine Recordings. Buy it here on Amazon.