♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ (out of a possible 5)
The more I listen to the new Blue October album Sway, the more I’m convinced this one is a personal best for the Austin based rockers, which is no small feat when you consider this is the 7th album in the band’s catalog.
At a time when many of their contemporaries have either disbanded or resigned themselves to regurgitating past glories, Blue October have raised their bar and all but reinvented themselves. It’s extremely rare for a band that has been around for as long as these guys have to sound anywhere near this fresh, but they truly do, with the kind of enthusiasm, passion and energy usually reserved for an up and coming indie act charging out of the garage and onto the charts.
One could argue, as a follow up to their brilliant but emotionally draining album Any Man in America, in order for the band, (as well as lead singer and songwriter Justin Furstenfeld ), to realistically survive, they were going to need to lighten up a bit, deny the darkness, embrace the beauty of their world and just “Sway“. The result is an album that is almost a spiritual revelation, an awakening of purpose and a celebration of the healing power of great rock and roll. My first thought as I listened to the new album was, “Holy shit, these guys are going to love touring in support of this one!”
The album opens with the short hymn-like, “Breathe, It’s Over“, which wouldn’t sound out of place on Pink Floyd’s The Wall– just after the wall comes down. It’s a perfect opener, and quietly announces a new journey down a healthier, happier road. Forget Green Day’s American Idiot on Broadway, personally I’d love to see a rock musical with Any Man in America serving as Act One and Sway as the uplifting and redemptive Second Act, (just putting it out there guys, do with it what you will, ha!). In many ways the two albums combined both contradict and compliment each other very well.
After the quiet opening the album launches into the radio friendly title track, “Sway“, which plays like a deep sigh of relief that comes after holding ones breath for far too long. “C’mon, dance with me…“, Furstenfeld beckons, with a new attitude that almost says, “you know what? Fuck it, we’re all going to be O.K., let’s enjoy the night“.
The album continues that vibe with “Angels in Everything“, a solid uptempo love song, as celebratory as it is earnestly thankful and “Bleed Out“, the first single released from the album, a driving and strong musical declaration of empowerment that should be put on constant rotation in your “work-out mix” for the gym.
The album takes a surprisingly sexy and groovy turn with the next track, “Debris“, (currently my favorite on the album). Furstenfeld’s strong dramatic vocals, combined with some of the sweetest bass work Matt Noveskey has ever committed to tape and the expert production work from Furstenfeld, David Castell and Tim Palmer makes this one a keeper for the ages, an instant classic in the band’s ever growing catalog of great songs. Coming in at over six minutes, it’s the longest track on the album but you’d never know it, it moves like a cool midnight breeze over the lake and almost demands an immediate repeat listen, (which I’ve been doing a lot in the past week).
In lesser hands the message contained in the album’s next track, “Fear“, would sound like it was ripped from the pages of a self help book, but Furstenfeld’s skilled songwriting expertly avoids this trap and features one of the most memorable melodies on the album. ” Fear in itself, will break you down and use you up, like you were never enough, I used to fall, now I get back up“. The reason the lyrics work so well is that you know the singer has been there and done that, the sincerity is impossible to deny and, while cynics may roll their eyes, I have no doubt the tune will help many a person facing a difficult situation in the future, the singer and this critic included.
Next up is the warm and hopeful, (how often have you seen those two words together in a Blue October review?), “Things We Don’t Know About“, a love song for a child from a parent, which Furstenfeld co-wrote with longtime band member/ bass player, Matt Noveskey. It’s all about growing up, both for the kid and the Dad, and is accentuated nicely by drummer Jeremy Furstenfeld’s accomplished percussion and some beautiful string work from the band’s multi- instrumentalist Ryan Delahoussaye.
The structure of an album isn’t often discussed or acknowledged in a review despite the fact that the creative teams often take great pains to line up the tracks in the best possible order, I feel obligated at this point to mention, these guys nailed it, (as they most often do). I honestly can’t imagine these tracks in any other order, (which, come to think of it, is why I might have been considering it in a stage musical/ concept album structure earlier).
Two of the albums strongest rockers come next, “Hard Candy” and “Put It In“, proving the band hasn’t lost it’s playfulness or sense of humor. In fact, “Put It In“, may be the most playful I’ve ever heard them. The tune rocks and the lyrics are occasionally laugh old loud, it’s a strong indication Furstenfeld doesn’t feel as obliged to take it all as painfully “serious” as he seemingly once did.
“Light you Up” is definitely a track for those who loved the band’s platinum selling album, Foiled, and would have easily fit as comfortably on that album as it does on Sway, it’s a solid return to form and one I can already hear the extremely loyal fan base shouting-along with on tour, like most of this album, it’s going to play live very well. The same can also be said for the excellent anthemic rocker, “Things We Do At Night“, yes, the chanting with fists in the air are all but guaranteed, (I could lie and tell you I haven’t already done this but why bother, honesty is always the best policy).
The final song on this album, “Not Broken Anymore“, is- in my opinion- the best ballad from ANY band in 2013 and may actually be the best Justin Furstenfeld has ever written, it’s that great. The best thing I can say about Furstenfeld’s songwriting is that he has never been afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve and put it out there, which, if you’re asking me, is the first rule in any art form and, as the songwriter matures and his well of experience gets deeper, the audience is rewarded as much as the artist himself. I should also mention this track, with it’s dreamy and haunting cello, is as perfectly produced as any record I’ve heard this year. Heads up Hollywood, if you don’t get this tune on a soundtrack ASAP you will have totally dropped the ball hard, (again).
The album closes with the gorgeous instrumental, “To Be“, a contemplative epilogue that encourages the listener to take a few minutes and reflect on the journey of hope and self discovery that you just experienced by way of Blue October’s Sway.
Though I will never deny the brilliance that was Any Man in America, it was a dark and painful journey. That being said, it was most definitely a road that needed to be traveled, if for no other reason, than to lead us- and the band- to the beautifully cathartic destination that is Sway.
I am as stunned to write this final statement as you will be to read it, you won’t find another album that will make you feel better this year than Blue October’s Sway. Wow guys, to quote one of your classics, “Congratulations“.
One final thought; This album was funded almost entirely by friends and fans who were generous enough to donate by way of the PledgeMusic website, you don’t get more “independent” than that. Please show your support for independent music and buy this one, save the file sharing for another day.
For more info on Blue October, including all the tour dates, check out blueoctober.com