Music that can charitably be described as ‘indie folk’ hardly represents an industry that’s currently going through a fallow period. The obvious offenders are Mumford & Sons, a band for which all reserves of disparaging epithets have been exhausted, so I won’t bother here, but you could also count The Lumineers, The Head and the Heart and Of Monsters and Men amongst the ranks of those currently concerned with producing cynically constructed, faux-emotional ‘anthems’ designed exclusively for the kind of casual-at-best music fans that tend to swarm the mainstream festival circuit these days. With their self-titled third record, you can add to that list Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros.
There is, at least, a fleetingly-interesting concept behind the Magnetic Zeros, and a more genuine attempt at the cultivation of a musically-relevant image than with some of those named above. The eponymous Sharpe is the alter-ego of former Ima Robot frontman Alex Ebert, who now serves as the de facto leader of a revolving group of musicians who comprise the Magnetic Zeros. This self-titled album is the quickfire follow-up to last year’s Here, with its thirteen songs exclusively penned by Ebert.
Opener ‘Better Days’ is a turgid mess of too many ideas; gospel-tinged backing vocals and chiming bells threaten to drown out the astonishing hypocrisy of Ebert decrying ‘cliché shit’, especially given the lyrical content of the track that follows. ‘Let’s Get High’ (yep, really) is a desperately ill-advised attempt at a hippie anthem that tackles racism with a level of sincerity and profundity more befitting an episode of South Park - “ain’t we all just Japanese when we’re high on love?” The song ends with a breathtakingly original refrain of “man in the mirror”, reminding the listener that Edward Sharpe is supposed to be a Messianic figure with about as much subtlety as a pneumatic drill.
In fairness, the record deserves credit for attempts at sonic diversity; there’s more than a hint of psych throughout, and whilst it isn’t always a positive affectation, it at least serves to elevate the Magnetic Zeros to a position above some of their musically-rigid contemporaries. Ebert himself actually has a pretty good voice, but it’s tarnished by his insistence on absolutely howling his way through most of the choruses, often at the expense of both melody and conviction. Put simply, he protests too much too often, as if worried that if he doesn’t strain his vocal cords at every opportunity, the emotive quality of his songs won’t resonate with the listener. The kitchen sink style of production doesn’t help, either; take ‘This Life’, where the hushed intimacy of the verses is crudely punctured by a chorus featuring completely unnecessary gospel singers.
Contrived as it might be, the Edward Sharpe persona has a purpose to serve – to ignite a communal atmosphere, however false, at live shows, and to act as a medium for the kind of lyrical platitudes that probably seem insightful to the un-fussy festival goer that the songs have been crafted for. There might well be a genuine intention on Ebert’s part to produce something of real artistic worth, but so long as he remains as verbally vapid and as musically undisciplined as he has been on this record, it’s hard to see his output having serious appeal to anybody who wants to be engaged on a level beyond mindless singalong.
Listen to Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros