Photo: Taby Cheng
It’s unfortunate that the lyric-turned-platitude, “the times they are a-changin’” has become ubiquitous to the point of parody. Its utility is almost undermined, hollowed out by its over-application. But damned if the times aren’t a-changin’ for Vancouver’s Said The Whale. As Long As Your Eyes Are Wide, the band’s upcoming fifth studio record, is as close to a clean slate as one can get, and more. Gone are the Cars-style power-pop guitar tendencies of “Camilo (The Magician)” and the hyper dance-rock of radio-staple “I Love You.” Gone are the lighthearted whimsies of “Lady Hourglass, Your Head’s On Fire!” or the delightful, childlike romps of “Taking Abalonia.” Gone are bassist Nathan Shaw, and founding member and drummer Spencer Schoening. A quintet became a trio, the members of which have gone through a series of personal trials and upheavals.
Co-frontman Tyler Bancroft admits that Shaw’s departure wasn’t much of a surprise. He had a side project that picked up steam, so it made his leaving foreseeable. Not so with Schoening, who’s played every single Said The Whale show since the band began. Amidst all this, the band, shaken up and pared down to the guitarist-vocalist double-punch of Bancroft and Ben Worcester along with keyboardist Jaycelyn Brown, trundled towards the 10 year mark.
“In May, it will have been 10 years,” Bancroft tells me over the phone from Vancouver, a west coast wind distorting his voice at times. Worcester is away camping this weekend, taking advantage of calm weather amidst a bizarrely harsh Vancouver winter. Bancroft is apprehensive about the decade milestone. “There’s something so fresh and exciting about a new band, and there’s something so boring about a band that’s been around for a while,” he worries. “There was a time not so long ago when I thought we should maybe just change the band name and come back as a new artist. And I still wonder if we should have done that.”
Said The Whale have crafted a new record that handily dodges the charges typically applied to a band grown boring. As Long As Your Eyes Are Wide might bear certain earmarks of the band’s reflexes; it’s replete with breezy vocal harmonies and a compulsion for expeditionary melodic lines while maintaining a level of populist pleasantry. They’re still writing lush, three-minute pop songs, but the boundaries have shifted; the frameworks of genre are rarely applicable or enforceable here, or at least they’re malleable. Bancroft notes dryly, “It will be so easy to say, ‘oh, Said The Whale made a synth pop record.’ But I don’t think that’s what it is at all. It’s pretty grimy.”
While lead single, “Step Into The Darkness,” offers the kind of pop sensibility and charisma that they’re known for, the song is composed in decidedly grander, richer schemes (which is saying something, given the already-dramatic heft of 2013’s hawaiii). It’s a delightful, effective amuse bouche for a brave, intricate, complex reiteration of one of Canada’s favourite alternative bands. Besides, how fitting that Said The Whale’s new record sets to work with a breakup song; already calling on the idea of new beginnings, clean slates, reconstruction, etc., with Worcester placing a hand on the small of our back, gently encouraging, “Let’s step into the darkness.”
“There’s, like, a beacon of hope in that song,” Bancroft suggests. It’s a fair assertion; what better way to diminish pain, darkness, confusion, than by suggesting unity and companionship in the face of them? Bancroft adds coyly, “Anytime a song starts with a drum beat like that, it’s hard to resist making it the opening track.”
Programmed drum tracks are just one new feature introduced on the record, alongside a wealth of bulky synths, chiming electronic triggers and charming percussion choices. Worcester and Bancroft let their guitars ride shotgun – nay, backseat – to a fresh, advanced spectrum of synthetics. It was a welcome and necessary shift for Bancroft, and in some ways, a homecoming of sorts. “Before Said The Whale was even a thing, we were making music in my basement just by dicking around with little keyboards and playing on ProTools. So it’s actually a return to how we used to do things.”
It’s not just the music that’s been rearranged. The record’s a notably darker work for the typically sunshine-y band, as suggested by the inaugural track. Bancroft, Worcester and Brown bravely and candidly tackle death and loss and heartbreak in no subtle terms. “Miscarriage” is blunt and throttling in its literal reflection: “And I’m thinkin’ how happy it seemed my mother was, she thought that I’d be a father.” Bancroft winces through the phone, his voice weighted. “Life does not get any funnier,” he says after a pointed exhale. “Miscarriage” is autobiographical, he explains. “Heaven” addresses Worcester’s neighbour who passed away, while the emotional, epic “Emily Rose” was written about a friend killed in a car accident. Bancroft is quick to accentuate that these songs are a release. “It feels good to write cathartic songs, and to be singing meaningful stuff every night,” he reasons. “That’s always what we wanted to lean towards.”
There are breaths of calm and collection scattered throughout As Long As Your Eyes Are Wide; little moments of airy brightness removed from the gravity of loss and pain. Bancroft retains a touch of sarcasm and levity in the face of difficulty with “I Will Follow You,” singing: “Holy fuck, we’re gonna need a ton of luck!” Elsewhere, Worcester ups the ante: “It’s raining, it’s pouring/Bored, and I’m boring.” These are tangible expressions of semi-comedy, but the record is also brimming with an intangible sparkle, nestled amongst its intimately curated compositions. It’s hard to not hear a wind-chimey resistance and sunny splendor running through the veins of the synths and patches layered across the album. Building these sounds was a laborious process, as Bancroft notes how album closer, “Lilac And Willow,” shapeshifted from “‘chill acoustic’ to ‘grimy, fuzzed-out ‘90s rock’ to ‘deep groove Beck’” before culminating in its current dream-pop iteration.
Bancroft understands the difficulty in accepting change. “You fall in love with a band and you just want them to make a slightly different version of the same record over and over again,” he submits, admitting his own involvement in that structure. “But it’s so fucking boring when you’re doing that.” The titular phrase As Long As Your Eyes Are Wide almost begs to be completed; it’s leading, inviting, suggestive, uncertain. It’s a phrase without explicit direction, asking for a second part to make it whole. Bancroft, Worcester and Brown have crafted a beautiful, cathartic album predicated on these ideas; an invitation to move forward with them. It’s up to us to change with them.