Album Review: Braids – Shadow Offering

[Secret City; 2020]

After Braids put out their lauded debut album Native Speaker in 2011, which was heralded as Canada’s answer to Animal Collective, the band went through quite a tumultuous period. The details of this can be found in many places online, but in short, due to a very serious in-band fissure, they lost a core member in keyboardist Katy Lee. What came after marked a serious shift in the band’s sound: 2013’s Flourish // Perish was an understated and complex followup to the band’s ecstatic debut, which found frontperson Raphaelle Standell-Preston cooing and murmuring rather than yelping and yipping. For many, this shift represented a dulling of a certain edge, but the band have only doubled down since then, releasing intricate electronic music with subtle jazz-inspired percussion and a real knack for creating little sparkling mazes to get lost in. 

Now releasing their fourth full-length album, Shadow Offering, the band seems to have found a way to mesh the world they started in with Native Speaker with the world they’ve created since. Opener “Here 4 U” feels like a natural progression from the band’s third album, Deep in the Iris, building slowly, growing denser and denser. Standell-Preston delivers personal lyrics (“Parts of me are waiting / And parts of me move on”) in her trademark forthright, mannered vocal delivery. The mix is at once both more spacious and more upfront than almost anything else the band has ever done, and this continues throughout the album, causing it to feel like their most urgent and bold record yet.

“Young Buck” certainly maintains that vibe, with its groovy textures, percolating synths (reminiscent of Standell-Preston’s side project, Blue Hawaii), and super catchy chorus. This is maybe the poppiest song the band has written yet, with lyrics as blunt as “Go drinking tonight with a nice muscled guy / The numbing kind / Everyone needs a little numb once in a while.” A surprising melodic shift on “Just Let Me” has Standell-Preston singing “Where did our love go?” over a spacey slow-jam instrumental. As is often the case with a Braids song, the drums, bass, and synths do subtle but expressive work that really grounds the moment. The closing “Note to Self” is a lovely and understated ballad, with piano, growing synth washes, and marching drums alongside words like “I tire of me sometimes / Like I tire of you.”

Sometimes, though, Braids can have a bit of trouble giving their ideas room to breathe, and the results can get a bit messy. “Eclipse (Ashley)” feels just a touch disjointed; it has a sort of 80s-style power ballad aesthetic that sounds good in theory, but comes off awkwardly in execution. “Upheaval ii” and “Fear of Men” lean a bit too much on a hard-edged guitar rock sound, which isn’t a guise that suits Braids as well as some others. And the aforementioned closer “Not to Self”, while pleasant, does end a tad abruptly, without coming off like a satisfying finale. 

“Snow Angel” provides perhaps the most interesting moment on the record; at nine minutes, it is epic in scope, if not in sound. The first section of “Snow Angel” just feels like what we have come to expect from a Braids song, with its softly pulsating synths and steady percussion. The ending section is a gentle, quiet way out of the track, with a new, wearier melody from Standell-Preston, wishing to “get off of this ride.” What lies between these two phases is a spoken-word piece, which is the real highlight. A fierce, angry, self-critical piece, which is almost uncomfortably honest, that might have been too much if not for Standell-Preston’s absolutely sublime, passionate delivery. Her seasick, go-for-broke performance here saves the moment from melodrama, lending it real weight and pathos, as she details the many ways she has been reckoning lately with consumerism, environmentalism, and white privilege. The emotion is deeply felt, and it feels like a hard-won moment. It’s just a shame the track surrounding it is as bland as it is.

Still, the album is littered with pleasing sonic flourishes, like the kalimba clicking away in the background of “Upheaval ii” or the thick bass and dewy plucks on “Ocean”. Standell-Preston still remains an interesting and sincere lyricist, issuing missives like “Get your shit together / We’re getting really tired / Of all your excuses / ‘Cause we still have pain,” or “It’s seeming so hard / To ever be loved by you”. 

Shadow Offering is a complex album, and their biggest, boldest effort yet, but it’s also a little at odds with itself. The bubbling synth arpeggios come up again and again, track after track, leaving some of the foundations here a bit stale, especially after the bright and brilliant one-two punch of its opening. Occasionally, the band goes for the jugular but winds up succumbing to melodrama instead. Standell-Preston, Austin Tufts, and Taylor Smith are still fantastic musicians, and can be really strong songwriters with weird and interesting ideas, but perhaps they would fare better if they boiled it down to the essentials next time, bask in their specific brand of minimalist rock, and shake off the excess.