Bad Machine marks the first time Boon have remained the same over two records. The fourth album from the Philadelphia quartet, it’s the sound of some kind of settling. Comfortable with their dynamic, the band ushered out the eight tracks that make up Bad Machine with relative haste: the skeleton of each song was recorded in a single day, and from there the band built upon it and added the flesh. Together they embraced the uncertainty of not knowing where the end result might take them; “we decided to lean into the chaos,” frontman Brendan Principato explains.
And if Bad Machine is anything, it’s an exploratory album that enjoys taking its time to stretch out where it can. Opening track “Pictures of Mom” introduces itself gradually with warm, awakening swells, like the band are rising from an extended slumber, while “The Light” spends its first half lost in an ocean of rumbling waves of jittery spume. Boon never seem afraid to let a moment have its due, but it’s the editing that might be its greatest fault here. Long moments might have been better if explored even further and others would be sharper if made more succinct.
It’s a shame that here they seem cautious about letting something go on too long when where the track could go next sounds like the real potential here: “Pictures of Mom” (even with its elongated intro) sounds like it’s missing a second part before “Talking To” jumps into the picture somewhat suddenly. On the other side there’s “Candle”, which is arguably the best cut here with it’s familiar and infectious vocal hooks: the song has energy to spare, which leaves the final minute or so a strange wordless appendix for the track to peter out when it would stick in mind better if it was more concise. As Principato sings all too tellingly on “Gallop”, “I don’t want to be / Far or near / Somewhere in between.”
Principato is a curious lyricist too. His description of “Candle”’s meaning (“it’s a frenetic oscillation between spaces real and imagined”) seems applicable to most of the lyrics on Bad Machine. Sometimes the words are ready to have meaning inferred: “Figure It Out” seems to explore the human condition, if not a listless depressive episode while “Pictures of Mom” quietly reflects on growing up and apart from memories. Elsewhere he gets a little too abstract and cryptic for his own good (“A bell in a bag in a crate on a river starts to toll” he explains on “A Shape, A Shell” like we should know exactly what he’s talking about).
This all said, for all its downsides, Bad Machine is still an enjoyable listen for the most part. Taking heavily from Strawberry Jam-era animal Collective (and the slew of other freak folk acts from that time), Boon paint a colourful picture that often has something to catch your ear (the way the swinging rhythm enters on “Pictures of Mom”; the burrowing bursts of mechanical noise of “Gallop”; the burst of energy in the final moments of “Talking To”), and even though it can feel like music you’ve heard a decade ago, at its best, it can feel like a jaunt through memory lane. You might not remember the details (or what they mean when you can), but you will remember enjoying the chaos when it erupted in that magical way it does.