It’s taken me a while to suss out why Infinite Arms, the almost annoyingly beautiful new album by Band of Horses, has received a big ho-hum from the indie intelligentsia (where it hasn’t been showered with lazy cries of “It’s the same as their other two albums,” which, by the way, it isn’t. Some bands have distinctive sounds – Band of Horses has high harmonies and shimmery guitars and yes, they appear on every album. Much the same way acoustic guitars and harmonicas show up on Bob Dylan’s best records. But I don’t think any of the internet’s esteemed critics would say Blood On the Tracks sounds “just like” Highway 61 Revisited). Some have gone so far as to accuse Ben Bridwell and company of not really “feeling it” on Infinite Arms, but I submit to you that what really bugs people about this album is that it is the best 1970s soft rock album ever made. I realized this about my third time through Infinite Arms and it scared the hell out of me because I think the phrase “soft rock” should be stricken from the musical lexicon (as much as I hate genres like “post-rock”, “soft rock” annoys me more. The only thing more likely to send me into a homicidal rage is “smooth jazz” which is really “watered-down jazzish music played by white people for white people who only have missionary sex”) and the 70s schmaltz of Hall & Oates and Seals & Crofts (this shit always came in pairs, I guess) is almost as banal and infuriating to me as the so-called “Laurel Canyon” scene that spawned the Eagles.
So I can understand the fear, outrage, and confusion that critics experience when faced with the sphincter-clenching cognitive dissonance caused by an album that is both awesome and very much a product of listening to the worst musical crimes of the 1970s. The best influence over Infinite Arms that I can identify is Brian Wilson, whom I’ve always viewed as highly overrated, despite his clear grasp of how harmonies work.
Admittedly, my initial trepidation about Infinite Arms was, in part, a product of my own expectations. After 2007’s Cease to Begin, I really wanted Band of Horses to follow the direction they took on “The General Specific” and basically be my generation’s reincarnation of the Band. For some reason, they decided to do what they wanted instead and Infinite Arms is the result. And I forgive them for following their hearts instead of mine because Infinite Arms is really awesome.
Here’s the thing: if you strip away your ego and really open your mind (and shouldn’t we who are egotistical enough to publish our opinions of music have open minds? I crap on smooth jazz a lot, but perhaps there is a smooth jazz record out there that I will enjoy. It’s less likely than the United States winning the World Cup in my lifetime, but I’ll grant that the possibility exists), you’ll hear Infinite Arms for what it is and, as its superb melodies and gorgeous harmonies wash over you, you’ll forget that it sounds suspiciously like something your dad might’ve owned on vinyl when he was in high school and just enjoy the fucking thing.
Of course, I could be disappointed that this is the first Band of Horses record that has had to grow on me, but fuck that. The point isn’t that it had to grow on me, it’s that it did. You know how many albums I listen to and wait for them to grow on me only to realize that, nope, I just hate them? A bunch. Like, a whole bunch. And then I start to resent them for not rewarding my time. Infinite Arms had me at listen number three (except for “Compliments” and “Laredo,” which I dug right off the bat) and I like it more every time I hear it. Bridwell has always had a gift for melody and he’s only gotten better at it with time. Of course, nothing on Infinite Arms is as immediately shattering as “Is There A Ghost?”, which led off Cease to Begin. But I’m going to tell you a secret now, despite the fact that I adore – adore – “Is There A Ghost?”: that song is barely a song at all. It has about three lines to it and is basically a really great trick pulled off by Bridwell’s astounding voice and Band of Horses’s grasp of dynamics. Like I said, I love it, but it would be shit in the hands of lesser bands. I only bring this up so that I can suggest that, from a compositional standpoint, Infinite Arms is Band of Horses’s finest hour. They still play to their dual strengths of melody and dynamics and add some lovely textures to the mix as well. And Band of Horses is one of the only bands that can so frequently dabble in Brian Wilson-style harmonies without pissing me off.
You know what I think? I can’t help thinking that a lot of interweb music writers, the men at least, are the kinds of guys who got called “fag” a lot in high school for their woefully unhip ability to read and write and perhaps – just perhaps – these writers can still hear the cries of “fag” and feel the dismissive shoves from the jocks when they find themselves relaxing a little and liking Infinite Arms. Certainly some of us (do I include myself here? Sure, why not?) compensate for being high school bottom-dwellers by lording our smarts over the masses here in cyberspace, where words and information reign supreme. But we must be careful, lest we become no better than those who slammed us into lockers and called us fags, and we must not fear Infinite Arms‘s utter loveliness. No, internet brethren, be secure enough in your masculinity to enjoy Band of Horses in all of their slow, pretty grace. There’s no one here to call you a fag, except in the comments section. But you can delete those.