While it’s not difficult to place the musical structures of I Like Trains into reasonable categories and make sensible comparisons, it’s nearly impossible to find a band so thoughtful about the entirety of their craft. Less discerning listeners will draw lines to The National (especially between the baritone of vocalists David Martin and Matt Berninger), Low and even Pedro the Lion and be done with it. But to do so is to miss the powerfully-crafted narratives that linger within each composition.
Longtime fans of the Leeds-based band will already expect such layers. Martin and company explore a new concept or story with each release and allow their music to inhabit the story. Terra Nova, for example, was an early, brilliant re-telling of the Antarctic expedition of Richard Scott that made waves for the band. Their last full length, He Who Saw The Deep, tackled apocalyptic themes. Whether a specific story or broader cultural themes, an I Like Trains release is going to take its time to explore the meaning and beauty of something of note.
The Shallows is the band’s third longplayer, and this time the quartet explore the ongoing relationship between humanity and technology. If that sounds like a tall order, it certainly is. Yet Martin’s dark, nuanced delivery is ideal for telling the band’s tales, even sometimes utilising a spoken word approach on tracks like ‘Reykjavik’.
The emotion and post-punk leanings of ‘Mnemosyne’ evoke The Cure at times, and the sense of drama is never higher than on this lead single. Named after the mythological mother of the nine Muses, Martin seems to sing of the cultural longing to break free of the patterns that hold us: “And though we hold out/We will fall in line again/We always do/I can’t resist/We will burn in hell for this”.
After some time, the tracks begin to run together on the brooding album. The Shallows lacks a dynamism, especially in the second half, that will put off less attentive listeners. ‘Reykjavik’ and ‘We Used To Talk’ are particularly at fault here, although that’s not to say the tracks are not good. Rather I Like Trains have intentionally chosen to live in one singular mood on The Shallows, for better or worse.