Sound — 6
With their breakout hit, "Lazy Eye," showcasing a warm and fuzzy shoegazing sound, a drumbeat reminiscent of Smashing Pumpkins' "1979," and frontman Brian Aubert's delicately androgynous singing style, Silversun Pickups went against the grain of the then-trendy indie rock sound of punchy garage and post-punk revival in the gentlest way possible. But though the band's debut album, "Carnavas," went for dreaminess, their follow-up album, 2009's "Swoon," displayed a more aggressive side for the band (primarily, with the infectious singles "Panic Switch" and "The Royal We"), reaching #1 on the Billboard Top Independent Albums chart and #7 on the Billboard 200, further establishing the band as one of the hot new things in indie rock.
Continuing this momentum, the band would work with seasoned indie/alt rock producer Jacknife Lee to make their third album, 2012's "Neck of the Woods," which, sonically, stressed negative space, let Aubert get conventionally crazy on his guitar, and even dabbled in Depeche Mode-influenced synthpop. With their three albums doing extremely well commercially, one would assume this would be the point where Silversun Pickups parlay into a major label record deal. But though they did part ways with their first label home, Dangerbird Records, they instead decided to go fully independent, starting their own label, New Machine Recordings, in order to release their fourth album, "Better Nature."
Christening this new phase of Silversun Pickups going their own way in terms of a label, the album also represents a new phase for the band's sound. Efforts that branch out into new territory are either in low gears (like the synthpop ballad "Friendly Fires" and the morose post-rock song "Ragamuffin"), or travel along smoothly without any spikes in energy (like the '80s-influenced alt rock cuts of "Cradle (Better Nature)" and "Connection"). Along with these attempts to branch out, Silversun Pickups also make efforts to call back to the sound of their earlier days. Characteristics found in their debut EP, "Pikul," sprout up here more than in any other album, like the prominent usage of acoustic guitar and more vocal parts by bassist Nikki Monninger in "Circadian Rhythm (Last Dance)" and "Tapedeck," and characteristics of "Carnavas" are rehashed in the steady-plodding "Nightlight" and the haziness of "The Wild Kind."
Though "Better Nature" travels a varied arc of styles, the general characteristic in its songwriting is a lesser focus on the band's conventional rock instruments and more focus on synthetic elements and other curveball instruments. The most inventive of this endeavor is "Tapedeck," where its incorporation of xylophones pays off for uniqueness, but for the most part, the tradeoff takes away from the band's initial energy and intrigue. Though keyboardist Joe Lester takes the reins as best he can (driving "Friendly Fires" with gritty analog throbs, and decorating "Ragamuffin" and "The Wild Kind" with sparkling arpeggios), it doesn't make up for Aubert and drummer Christopher Guanlao, two integral forces of the band, being back-seated - Aubert only gets a decent guitar solo in "Latchkey Kids," whereas Guanlao is too subdued by the gentler demeanor of the album.
Lyrics — 7
Compared to the colorful narratives and loose concepts heard in "Swoon" and "Neck of the Woods," Aubert's lyrics in "Better Nature" are much more laconic. Nevertheless, Aubert still manages to carry themes and symbolism to link songs together. The biggest theme throughout the album is an appeal to the simpler days of youth, which not only comes in the form of face-value nostalgia (heard in the relationship remembrance of "Tapedeck"), but also represents the sense of freedom from responsibility - after Aubert expresses his insecurities sprouting from the modern day in "Connection" ("How in the world can I compete / When I'm plugged in to the new machines?"), later songs indicate his desire to break away (the symbolism of the line "If we enter through the front door / With the keys we stole from the night before / Now we have the right to be the masters" in "Nightlight" connects with the key-themed empowerment of youths in "Latchkey Kids").
Running alongside this theme, a second ongoing theme between Aubert's first-person narrative and an unnamed character (referred to in the second person) wrestles with similar concerns of this concept of youth, or rather, expressing remorse towards growing up and leaving the past behind. Aubert first chides this second character as growing up for worse in "Pins & Needles" ("My how you've grown / Never knew how low / You could get before zero"), then reveals his longing feelings for them in "Circadian Rhythm (Last Dance)" ("Standing arm and arm, still so out of reach / Well there's nowhere left to go, stay with me"). The symbolism of dancing in the chorus of the previous song connects with "Ragamuffin," which dovetails with the theme of growing out of youth and simpler times ("Then, as the years flew by / And all the water dried / There, I saw you dancing alone"), as well as showing the second character neglecting their sense of youth ("Covered your tracks, so how would you know / This ragamuffin wants to follow you home?").
Overall Impression — 6
Despite being necessary to stay fresh, there's always a calculated risk that comes with a substantial change in sound. Silversun Pickups have traveled a satisfying arc of gradual change throughout their first three albums and their debut EP, but the more sizable change that "Better Nature" brings to the table ends up doing more harm than good. Though the album undoubtedly explores new areas without regret, it ultimately takes away more of the band's original sonic appeal than it adds new intrigue. Ultimately, "Better Nature" is both a step forward and a step down for Silversun Pickups.