X Ambassadors had their work cut out for them after the success of their debut album. VHS reached platinum status with hits like “Renegades,” “Unsteady,” and “Jungle” to name a few. VHS was charged with rockin’ energy and nearly every song on the album was ready to shine as its own single. After reaching such popular heights, X Ambassadors delivered a more subdued and reflective sophomore album Orion that is more fitting for quiet nights with a few friends rather than the packed frenzy of a dance floor.
If you commute or listen to the radio, you have likely already heard X Ambassador single “Boom,” on the airwaves. The funky beat is the closest to matching the energy of VHS and one of the few dance songs on Orion. Like the rest of the album, a lot of the instrumentals have been stripped away to focus on lead singer Sam Harris’ vocals. The hypnotic repetition maintains a steady beat without the continuing escalation that helped make each song on VHS epic. “Boom” represents the high note of energy on the album as the rest of the track list focuses each song around a story.
“Hold You Down” stands out as the strongest song of Orion. It is a love song, but rather than two strangers forming a new family, the song represents the love between two brothers. The band’s keyboardist Casey Harris – Sam Harris’ older brother – was born virtually blind and can only make out images of high contrast. That is why the album cover for Orion contains distinctive black and yellow themes so all members of the band can see the culmination of what they have worked on. “Hold You Down” sings with confidence and certainty about a future together. While many love songs are all about the hope that it will last, “Hold You Down” is for the nonnegotiable relationships that will last for the rest of their lives.
Orion takes a look at the harder aspects of living with several of their songs. “Quicksand” focuses on a family in the cycle of poverty, constantly hustling on the side to make ends meet, but still sinking in place without solid ground to stand on. “History” is another love song, reflecting on a divorce. There is no clean break, as the two lovers will always have each other in their history, but that is all they will be since there is no more future with each other. If VHS represented the energy of youth, Orion feels like the contrasting shadow following all bright moments. Love can fade and good people do not always get by. It is not something to avoid, but to reflect on and learn from.
X Ambassadors balance the melancholy of some of their songs with the reflections of the rest of the album. “Shadows” is about running from one’s sins rather than accepting the blessings in their life. The lyrics culminate with the lines, “And all I need is killin’ me, it’s killin’ me/ As soon as I get what I wanted before/ It’s not what I want anymore.” The instrumentals fade out as the irony is recognized, before drifting back into the endless search the song began with. It is a beautiful moment of the album, but is only a brief glimpse as the song retreats back into the familiar.
Rather than try to top the energy of their previous album, X Ambassadors returned with a more subdued album. They have been in the spotlight ever since VHS and with Orion they choose to shine that spotlight on lesser-discussed aspects of loss and worry that do not often reach the popular charts. While Orion does not have as many standalone hits as their first album, it is an album that can be listened on repeat long into the future.