Stabbing Westward has been writing angst-laden songs about “love gone bad” for a long time now. With the original band members — and perhaps most of their loyal fan base — now well into their 30s, one might hope that for their own sake these guys finally find stable relationships.
But what happens then — if they really have settled down and spent some time in a leather chair tying up loose ends? As a band, do they really have anything else relevant to say?
Judging by its self-titled fourth offering, a self-professed “rebirth,” Stabbing Westward is a band that has reached its musical maturity. The combination of hard-hitting guitar playing and deftly mixed industrial tracks by programmer/guitarist Walter Flakus has gelled at just the same moment lead singer Christopher Hall has reached a point of complete confidence in his vocal ability.
But somehow, the new mix just doesn’t sit comfortably on top of the same old lyrical motifs of abandonment and isolation that made songs like “Save Yourself” so haunting. It seems like the band’s intellectual growth just couldn’t keep pace with its musical development.
In “Perfect,” Hall’s lyrics seem to hint at a nostalgia for that younger period in the band’s life when he really felt the kind of malaise that he now attempts to recreate: “Why can’t it be/ Why can’t it be/ Perfect like it used to be,” he sings.
This song, as well as others like “High” and “Happy,” show off the band’s mature new sound, and carry some striking lyrical moments as well.
But “So Far Away” is the closest the band comes to executing something perfect, coherent and — most importantly — new. Hall’s haunting vocals and a carefully-orchestrated sea of distorted guitar sounds are carried along by a thumping baseline and a smattering of sampled effects. The result is reminiscent of Popmart-era U2 — Hall at his best really is in the same league with Bono as a vocalist.
The rest of the album is all over the place.
Several tracks are clearly products of the band’s desire to be more pop-friendly, like the unimaginatively optimistic “Breathe You In.”
Others nod to fans of the band’s early work, from “Wasted” and its mix of a rough rhythm guitar and abrasive lyrics (“I’ve spent my whole life/ Trying to f— the loneliness away”) to “Television” and its Nine Inch Nails-esqe assault of feedback, sampled submarine “pings” and other electronic effects.
Stabbing Westward might be a band that has found itself. At moments it articulates a compelling new sound that is clearly derived from and an improvement on its old work. But the self-discovery is only momentary. The rest of the time, the band either sticks tiredly with what it used to be or just as tiredly plays out the pop music formula.