I’ve been thinking about this album for weeks now. The title has strred blankly back at me when I glance at my list of things to do. And yet I had managed to write tantamount to nothing. I couldn’t think of where to start, I couldn’t write anything as equally grandiose and ambitious as Both Lights, so I wrote nothing at all. And I get this sort of self-aware gesture is no way to do an album or an artist justice, so I strive to more genuinely describe this terrific album in the coming paragraphs.
Both Lights is AU’s third studio album, and I use the term ‘band’ very loosely here. AU is the work of Luke Wyland and Dana Valatka, two multi-instrumentalists who have taken on many different collaborators and touring support in recent years. On record and on tour the band features anywhere from three to six members, varying from track to track. Sonically, AU is something of a forceful twist between Broken Social Scene and Dan Snaith (aka Caribou), an endless list of instruments and sounds coalescing into gorgeous melodies and genre-bending anthems. Turn on “Epic,” the album’s first track, and you’re greeted with sporadic and intense drum rhymes, accompanied by Colin Stetson’s saxophone and other various brass parts. As the track continues, the sounds begin to change their voice to a high-pitched crescendo, a brilliantly paced piece of art that is just the beginning to Both Lights‘ awesome ride. But, for as much as “Epic” is the perfect example of how meticulously frantic and upbeat AU can be, the rest of the album is a finely-tuned drift towards the peaceful and more traditional.
“Solid Gold,” the album’s first single, is a balance of both those elements. The delicate and drifting voice of Luke Wyland begins by describing a lover, backed only by a few piano keys and the echo of a recording space. It’s a moment of relief on the album, really, as thirty seconds in the clamoring of different keyboards and the smashing of drumsticks fill the track with the same energy displayed up to this point in Both Lights. Aside from the screeching keyboards on “Why I Must,” the album begins to wind down and enter a more traditional state of affair with after “Solid Gold.” It’s a welcome change, as the manic pace of the first half of the album make for an exhausting, albeit exciting, listen. By the time you get to “Old Friend” and the slow-rolling piano keys drift along in the background, you hardly remember the album was at one time a mix of a dozen different instruments. As “Old Friends” blends into the album’s closing track “Don’t Lie Down,” and echoing guitars and hazy vocals slowly take the listener to a world that is both completely different yet equally beautiful to that of “Epic”; AU manage to craft one of the better moments in music this year.
Both Lights excels because it just barely excels. There’s a point in each track where it sounds as though everything might go terribly wrong, that moment of realizing a band is trying too many things for their good and sounding foolish in the process. But somehow AU manage to reign in their music just enough to make it exciting and suspenseful without being cheesy. The album tells a coherent story, sonically, that manages to change from one side to the next but isn’t shocking when it does so. Sequencing and patterns are important for an album to support one main idea, but so many albums begin and end in the same fashion, often losing a listener’s attention throughout the process. That’s not the case with Both Lights. Crafting an album that’s bold and expansive but manageable and narratively sound is no easy task, and that’s exactly what AU have done.