29.7.13

"Evil Friends" Is My Favorite Album of the Year So Far, and It Is Only Slightly Evil

Portugal. The Man's Evil Friends is dark. It may be one of the darkest albums I've ever heard, if simply because it is about choosing to believe God does not exist. The lyrics are angrily howled and whispered in soft falsetto, and they are almost uniformly pessimistic, a sort of weary punk malaise. I mean, it's called Evil Friends, and have you looked at that demon guy on the cover?

But it is also the most enjoyable album I've heard in years. It is gorgeous and schizophrenic, a collection more akin to Abbey Road than four decades of Beatles imitators. I think you will love it.

Okay, comparing a Portland-based band on its third record to The Beatles' masterwork is overstating things. It's not that good. But it's still really good. Portugal. The Man is all over the place, swinging from balladry to punk to pop sing-a-longs, often within the same song. But everything is tied together on the melodies, which are lovely and some of which pop up again throughout the album.

Back to the dark, though. I'm oversimplifying, but Evil Friends seems to be a concept album tracking a conversion to atheism. The popular story of that transition is usually spoken of in terms of reason v. emotion: Atheism is logical; Christianity is for the weak-minded.

In Evil Friends, loss of faith is deeply emotional. There are reasonable complaints behind the lyrical content, but it's mostly a painful divorce. "Modern Jesus" directs its chorus at slimy evangelists ("Don't pray for us/We don't need no modern Jesus to roll with us/The only rule we need is never giving up/The only faith we have is faith in us.") "Sea of Air" is about how there is nothing above man. There are many, many more examples.

Religion isn't the band's only target. "Waves" is the finest anti-war song since 9/11, a steadily igniting anthem with lyrics that are simple and incisive and tell an unflinching oral history of the toll the War on Terror has wrought on America's conventional forces. When John Gourley sings "No one cares about the waves at the bottom of the ocean/Because at the bottom of the ocean, it's always blue", it's a stunning reminder that Oh, right, we're still at war.

I wanted to say it's not all doom and gloom, but you'd have to squeeze hard to find optimism in Gourley's lyrics. But, as I said earlier, this album is enjoyable. It's fun to listen to, even over and over. There are threads of songs that pop up later in different tempos and lyrics. I'm not even sure what to compare Evil Friends to, musically, besides The Beatles. Coldplay's A Rush of Blood to the Head? Evil Friends is more elaborate and definitely less saccharine. Passion Pit? Less squeaky. A poppier Radiohead? Not really. Green Day's American Idiot? HELL NO.

Just listen to it, is my point.

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