All you need is love, right? Maybe, if you’re a member of The Beatles. If you’re part of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, however, you’re going to need to deliver a lot more than “good vibes” to create a successful album. With new LP PersonA, the folk group ventures out of its comfort zone to explore less cheerful, participatory music, failing to create a record of the same caliber as its previous releases.
Much has changed since the releases of the band’s first three albums, Up From Below, Here, and its most recent self-titled album. First and foremost, frontman Alex Ebert’s long-term girlfriend, Jade Castrinos, who doubled as the group’s lead female vocalist, left both Ebert and the band in 2014. Due to her departure, PersonA has none of the sugary love-driven duets like breakout single “Home” or “That’s What’s Up,” two songs that can be considered responsible for much of the band’s success.
Perhaps Castrinos can be held accountable for the change in Ebert’s lyrical style as well. On PersonA, the Magnetic Zeros trade in their more personal love ballads for a greater, universal idea of love, again echoing the work of the drug-induced version of the late-’60s Beatles. Granted, this is not the first time this painfully recycled theme has appeared on a Magnetic Zeros track. On their self-titled album, “Let’s Get High” read like the musings of a festival ground hippie. “Let’s get high / high on love,” sings Ebert. “We’re all Jesus in disguise when we’re high on love.” Yet at least on this older track, the band had the guiding hand of a more involved producer who disguised the preachy content with a clean, upbeat sound.
In addition to turning to themes of a greater, overarching love with its lyrics, the 10-man group tried for the first time with PersonA to co-write the majority of songs on the album, crafting tracks out of communal jam sessions in Ebert’s recently purchased recording studio in New Orleans. This creative flow and freedom is new to the Magnetic Zeros. Up until this point, the group’s songs were nearly all designed with a clear structure that promoted listener participation. With clapping serving as percussion and catchy, whistling riffs dispersed throughout its first three LPs, the band dedicated its efforts to creating music that was enjoyable for the listener, not a particular showcase of its individual instrumental talents.
With two of the tracks on PersonA clocking in at over six minutes, and four tracks lasting over four, it’s easy to tire of the band’s new artistic direction. The deconstructed jam session that may have fared well in a live performance doesn’t serve to please on a studio album. With only 10 songs creating a 45-minute album, PersonA blends into one musical backyard, losing the listener’s interest.
While the overall quality of PersonA does not impress, there are some shining moments within the rough. “No Love Like Yours,” in addition to the last two songs on the album, “Lullabye” and “The Ballad of Yaya,” serve to at least pique the listener’s interest again, if not entirely recapture it. “No Love Like Yours” is the shortest of the album, and a clear balm for the die-hard fans of the Magnetic Zero’s folk ditties.
“Lullabye” is a welcome break from the existentially panicked lyrics of the rest of the album, existing as a sincere message to Alex Ebert’s daughter. Primarily featuring a calming, if slightly somber, piano, “Lullabye” is still a deviation from the acoustic guitar and horn-heavy origins of the band. Finally, “The Ballad of Yaya” is the best execution of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zero’s new direction. “I see you changing, yeah / you’re not the only one,” Ebert croons, continuing to suggest that he and his cohorts are, “runnin’ for the sun.” The track still sounds like the soundtrack to a late ’60s bonfire-side trip, but doesn’t possess the preachy quality or boring, recycled sound of other projects on the album.
It is clear that with this album, Alex Ebert and his cohorts are aiming to change both their future direction and their current image. Even the cover of this album hearkens to this effort, showing the name of the band with “Edward Sharpe and the” struck through with red spray paint. From here on out, the music produced will be a collaborative effort, and the content will extend from beyond Ebert’s personal love life to a universalized concept of communal gratification and amity.
Yet while PersonA was an attempt to realize this direction, it fell short in providing any listener satisfaction. The message was overwhelmingly familiar and condescending, without any of the familiar musical cheer that Magnetic Zeros fans have come to know and love. Now all there is to do is wait and hope that a live performance will justify the unkempt production of the album, or that the successor to PersonA will recognize Ebert’s vision in a way more appetizing to his followers.
Featured Image By Community Records