The Head and the Heart desperately wants to become the next One Republic. Their once folk-heavy sound (Let’s Be Still from 2013) has morphed into a more pop-friendly tone since the release of their Signs of Light record from 2016. The lead single from that album, “All We Ever Knew,” defined the band’s shift in aesthetic, trading raw acoustic ballads for overly-produced ear candy (kind of like OneRepublic in 2013, where they dominated the airwaves off of the same style of music). Their lyrics became too generic to be relatable, the production too emphatic to be emotional.
Lead singer Jonathan Russell is doing everything in his power to make motivational music. He’s witnessing the blueprint Ryan Tedder and The Lumineers have set-artists that entered the mainstream off of catchy choruses, and radio-friendly concepts (about motivation and finding one’s happiness of course). Tell me, what end-of-the-school-year video didn’t have One Republic’s “I Lived” playing in the background? I know my high school senior powerpoint did. Those dudes made hits, even before the chart-topping success of Native.
The Head and the Heart want their own taste of mainstream glory in 2019. Their newest project, Living Mirage, finds them fully fledged into a more commercialized approach. Russell, now a married man, articulates love in its most basic form, especially on the intro track, “See You Through My Eyes.” The chorus-“this could be so easy, if you could see you through my eyes,” is reminiscent of an old One Direction ballad (no joke), and the added background vocals mirror an early Lumineers single (think “Stubborn Love”).
Charity Thielen (violin, guitar, vocals) enters the forefront a lot on Living Mirage; although her contributions are oddly masked behind the bombastic guitar chords, specifically on the intro. She’s barely audible amongst a variety of percussion clashing all at once.
The glossy instrumentals do eventually play in the band’s favor. “Missed Connection” falls in the same vein as any track off of Signs of Light, just with a little more nuance (the track’s about the first time he met his girlfriend). Russel’s breezy vocal performance is less buttoned-up, and more reflective. Not all of the affection is taken out of the lyrics thankfully (“Don’t tell me I lost a step/Criss-crossed int he wrong direction/Found myself in a conversation, with a missed connection”).
Thielen does make a splash on the piano-driven “Brenda,” utilizing child-like effects to evoke a certain youthfulness not too often found in the band’s recent body of work (not since Let’s Be Still at least). That same raw energy makes an appearance once and awhile on Living Mirage, mainly rearing its head during the latter half. Russell and company tone back the production on “Saving Grace” and “Glory of Music,” allowing fervor to take over. It’s undoubtedly a high point for The Head and the Heart, as well as remnants of what used to be. In retrospect, it’s the band not caring about all of the hoopla surrounding them for once. Just them and their instruments; that’s all that should matter.
The album reaches a forgettable apex on “Run Through Hell;” featuring synthetic drum kicks and faint vocals that are identical to an early Bruce Springsteen or Bob Dylan song. In a nutshell, the track is the reason why The Head and the Heart haven’t cracked the commercial success they’ve so often pressed for. Very rarely have they created a sound that stands out from the rest of the playing field-which unfortunately seems to plague a lot of independent artists trying to find their niche. The landscape is saturated, with very few original voices reaching audiences. Stay true to yourself, and success may be imminent (as shown through Tame Impala and Vampire Weekend). You will also keep your cult fanbase in the process. Sadly, the Seattle-based rockers may lose that after these past few years, especially if they continue to live in an awkward comfort zone.
On Living Mirage, The Head and the Heart would like to think they’ve uncovered some mysterious angle about love. But in reality, they’ve just barely scratched the surface. Russell has figured out how complex a romantic relationship can be through marriage, but very rarely does he express why or how. The band would rather find themselves on the radio, as shown through their change in tone. As a result, Living Mirage will undoubtedly get lost in the shuffle of indie acts vying for a spot on the Billboard Hot 100.