Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit

Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros return for when reality gets too heavy to handle

15 April 2016, 10:45 Written by Ryan Thomas
Folk’s sincerest Earth-child is back with a new Zeros album, and even less ego - so much less, that he’s crossed his own pseudonym off the album cover, keeping only the namesake of his ten-person convent visible. Leaning deeply on the shoulders of his fellow Zeros - with the onus off himself for a change - Alexander Ebert lets himself get liberated on PersonA.

This band sounds like home. Not just because of the song that follows the band everywhere they go, but because of the inescapably warm, familiar feeling inspired by their tradition-heavy folk music. Home is where your innocence is born, and where you know you can always return when reality gets too heavy to handle. Same is true of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros.

It’s been three years since the last Zeros album, and even without the June Carter-to-his-Johnny Cash vocal companionship of Jade appearing anywhere on PersonA, how great it is to have Alexander Ebert return to our lives at any capacity, pouring milk on our souls with his drippy yipping voice so imbued with purpose and earnesty. Singing about God, religion, persecution and political revolution, love, or just straight nonsense, it all feels good from his lips to our ears. Sometimes he’s just making funny noises, and that’s fine too. Nothing is better than Alex Ebert at his realest, and he gets pretty real here, despite having a contrived alter-ego. And that dichotomy clearly plays a big part in PersonA’s overall concept.

On “Uncomfortable”, we get some straight truth talking. "What you call justice, I can't call no..." Ebert sings, "If I can't BREATHE, I can't call no." Eric Garner's 2014 murder by police brutality comes to mind most overtly here, even more urgently when we hear Ebert choke on his spit when he hits the word 'breathe'. To the tune of a handful of naked piano chords and some light ambient chaos, Ebert channels the burning spirit of Ray Charles to condemn society’s greater apathy towards human suffering. Preaching from the Bible of the 99%, Ebert is trying to wake us up with pointed, provocative lines - like the non-sequitor about a minute-and-a-half in where the only decipherable words are "...BLACK slaves to me" - because he fervently believes in his message: being uncomfortable is the first step to us starting to help one another.

Things get less serious on “No Love Like Yours” which is easily the album’s most cathartic track. You can already hear this song being the one everyone sings along to at all the big summer music festivals. Full of bright harmonies, bluegrass instruments, and Ebert’s knack for penning a good hook, this song erupts into the sort of big, communally-resounding chorus that made everyone fall in love with this band in the first place.

The music of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros is a cult. Not a cult as in a yoga retreat that costs your life savings, but the good kind of cult. A cult of pure intention. Cult meaning a place of belonging and unyielding optimism. A place where socialist and communist ideologies are used correctly, not subversively, to benefit the lives of people. That’s how their music feels: like the encompassing love of a community. And with ten people playing an assortment of musical instruments at any given time, the band is a high-functioning community unto itself.

That community only veers astray when it indulges in gratuitous coda-turned-jam sessions, where the group dynamic overcasts Ebert’s tighter, content-driven songwriting. Not a bad thing, but perhaps such spacey explorations would be best reserved for the live setting, where time is less of an object. The 7-minute album opener “Hot Coals” is a good example of where the waffle gets lost in the syrup; although it does lay out a clear thesis of this being an album for the Zeros.

Where the band truly shines is when it strikes a balance between erudite musicianship and songwriting prowess. “The Ballad of Ya-Ya” sees this done remarkably, lyrics celebrating a long-life well-lived betwixt ragtime piano-playing, a buoyant horn-laden romp of a beat, and Abbey Road-like key changes and part sequencing (Unshy Beatles fans, the most overt homage comes in the form of “Somewhere,” which starts out covering George Harrison's “Here Comes the Sun,” and winds up on a psychedelic vision-quest through India).

More sweet melodies appear throughout and nestle close to your heart; the lovely Lennon-esque protest anthem ”Free Stuff,” the Leonard Cohen-befitting crooner ballad “Perfect Time,” the straight-up minuet “Lullaby”. These songs come from far and wide - like timeless, tireless gypsies through the mystical portals of history. Where this album is a hostel, each song is a lodging traveler with its own story to tell. And put together in one setting, not one feels lonely or out of place.

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