some fall in love. i shatter.

Blood On The Tracks (#32)

In Stories Volume 2 on December 3, 2012 at 12:26 pm

The Hartford Record

12.3.2012

Record Review

Transistor Heart

Break It or Leave It

5 Stars

– Ethan Ludson

 

For Transistor Heart to release their fifth album, Break It or Leave It, after two years in which bassist Andy Morris and drummer Clive Kessler stepped away in order to form the critically acclaimed Contract Killers, is a minor miracle. To have it be the best album of their career is a major one. It stands to reason that the Contract Killers, both the band and their eponymous debut, have exerted a measure of influence unheard of on any of the previous Transistor Heart albums. The lyrics are once again coming from the Jonathan Trim and Suzanne Figure side of things (though there are no collaboratively written songs on here) but Morris and Kessler have taken the music writing reins this time around. The atmosphere they cultivated on their side-project, most reminiscent of Interpol’s 2002 debut, Turn On The Bright Lights, has been recreated and superimposed over lyrics that no longer seek to mask the tension and aggression between Figure and Trim, the once principle duo in the band. Their inclusion in the creative process reignites what had felt burnt out for the last couple of albums. The recent Trim/Figure divorce has already put an end to Transistor Heart, but it only seems fitting that this final album for this sometimes promising and sometimes delivering band is carried in large part by those who have, until now, been the least central characters in their arc.

Regardless of the shifting dynamic within the band, any review of a Transistor Heart album is contractually obligated to make mention of the ‘love story’ between Trim and Figure. Which isn’t to say that it isn’t completely warranted; the trajectory of their relationship has been a key ingredient in the tone of each album and the band has both been formed and now dissolved on the solvency of said relationship. It’s become modern mythology how Union, the band’s first album for a major label, was comprised of rerecorded versions of the lo-fi bedroom project EPs Homespun and Stand, which Trim had recorded as love letters for Figure. The energy in the lyrics and beat, the looseness, the plaintive honesty that Trim wrote and the earnest delivery that Figure gave. This was a blossoming romance and their sophomore effort, Keep Coming Together, offered more assured writing, equal to the more assured emotions that Trim and Figure felt for one another.

The Fox and The Hound came a year after their marriage and ultimately became the signpost of when the unraveling began, both musically and in the dynamic between the couple. As a nod to creative expansion, Trim relinquished songwriting duties to Figure for half the album; he as the titular hound and she as the fox. Nobody could have foreseen how well Figure’s half of the album would be received because she’d never had the opportunity before, and nobody knew how frail Trim’s ego was until he suddenly stood on the edge of the spotlight. The next album, Treble Times, took nearly 18 months to come out as the band dealt with the distractions and the intrusion of the outside world. People wanted news but instead of being about the music, most reporting became focused on the relationship and all indications of wear. This was broadcast loud and clear on Treble Times and it’s universally known as Transistor Heart’s worst album. Trim maintained all composing responsibilities and took back all of the lyric writing. This led to beyond-cryptic lyrics that were heavily veiled statements about the relationship, reportedly too cryptic for even Figure to comprehend, and instrumentation of plucking guitar and brushed drums that was barely there.

That entire recap is meant to say that Break It or Leave It was expected to be the death knell, the nail in the coffin, the terrible album that broke Transistor Heart’s back. Turns out it instead broke it’s heart and gave us the remains to lovingly sift through.

Where the music had been growing sparse in order to put their damaged-emotion lyrics center stage, the instrumentation now lives a fuller life. The skeletal acoustics that dominated Treble Times have been fleshed out and plugged back in. Not only are the lyrics given more meaning in front of the angular and jittery instrumentation, but the music creates a room for itself in which it thrives, turns around, and grows on itself.

The lyrics, which had grown increasingly opaque as Trim sought to simultaneously expose and cloak his feelings, and which seemed to hinge on references that we were never privy to, have become more honest. A portion of this comes from Figure having taken back more of the lyric-writing responsibilities. Directness worked for Trim during the courtship phase and directness has again become the trick that propels this album. From “Keep Coming Out to the Shows,” which is a bitter callback to their second album, we get this repeated chant at the end of the song: “Keep coming out to the shows/ Find the validation/ Press yourself into your fans/ Indulge your inclination.” In the wake of Figure’s rumored dalliances with fans, the only thing we’re left uncertain of is just how much Trim seethed as he wrote these lyrics. This emotion, unblanketed and unvarnished, is what we’ve all been looking for in this incarnation of Transistor Heart. In “Once More Around,” Figure leaves us with these lines as the bass hook pulls us into a loveless undertow: “Dream what you want/ I won’t be there tomorrow/ Say what you want/ There’s no love left to borrow.”

We also have here a return to the format of Union, which presented us with the lighter fare upfront and the heavy meat in the back half. In past interviews, Trim has said, “You don’t court a woman by approaching her with the heavy stuff. You make her laugh, you make her smile, you get her to trust you, because a lot of guys are people that you shouldn’t trust. You win her over to you as a person and then you lay out the heavy stuff.” He followed this logic on those EPs and subsequently began to lose that sequencing focus that elevated really good songs to great songs. But now, an invigorated Trim has taken the time to set the sequencing in such a way that he lulls us in with the light stuff. The album opens with ‘I’m Not Your George Gershwin,’ a back-and-forth duet with two characters singing what they want each other to be and the other responding that it isn’t going to be happening any time soon.

Break It or Leave It ends with “5th Floor Walkup,” a pedestrianly named song that flays the listener just when presuming that the worst is over. It’s sound is of a time that hasn’t existed for this band since their debut album and it’s a reference to that apartment where Trim recorded those EPs for Figure and where they once lived together. Transistor Heart has always been, at it’s most fundamental, Jonathan Trim’s band. And just as he began it, he lays the final brick into the building and calls the project complete.

The album ends with the lines: “Just let me go/ Don’t fight so hard anymore/ Just let me go/ Forget those things that you adored/ Just let me go/ There’s nothing left for you to see/ Just walk away from me.” A part of it sounds directed towards Figure and the other part sounds directed towards the rest of us.

 

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  1. I was waiting to catch up on the last 2 weeks at the Doha airport and it is a pleasure to say it was worth the wait :). Great idea for this last piece!

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