It’s a blessing that Signs of Light, the new album by Seattle folk band The Head and the Heart, was released in early September. It contains several gems that would make ideal background music for introspective autumn days, when the crisp winds of change stir the air where both endings and beginnings are unfolding.
The album opens with “All We Ever Knew,” a single that achieves a radio-friendly sheen without forsaking the band’s organic sound. The song begins with sparse instrumentation and somber vocals about love that only exists in dreams. Then the delicate plinking of piano keys floats into the listener’s ears and resolute percussion resounds, transforming the song from a hopeless lament into a catchy, self-aware take on relationship troubles. Some critics might dismiss the song’s “la la la”s as an indie folk cliché; however, clichés are often clichés because audiences respond well to them, and undoubtedly this one will be a crowd-pleaser. It mingles joyously with the song’s beautiful string section, resulting in a bridge that’s perfectly suited for starlit sing-alongs at outdoor concerts.
The next two songs are less memorable. Although “City of Angels” contains several instances of intriguing imagery, its redundancy prevents it from reaching the heights of other great California songs. “Rhythm and Blues” ends on a strong note with driving guitars and a belted bridge; however, the song sometimes lacks the charisma and vitality to match its lyrics. “False Alarm” though, is a hit from the start. With a steady beat, a melody that rises gracefully like smoke from a campfire, and an emphatically sung ending that evokes the Killers’ work on Sam’s Town, it’s sure to stay in listeners’ minds for days.
“Dreamer” is one of the album’s most distinctive tracks. Evoking comparisons to the glossy ballads of the late ’50s and ’60s, it moves along slowly and sweetly, but not without plenty of energy. The vocals soar toward the sky, playing with cadence and dynamics, while the gently twanging guitars and dramatic violins accent the lyrics’ starry-eyed pleas for understanding. The percussion, too, is far from banal, injecting the song with an increasing sense of urgency. “Library Magic,” the following track, is also sonically interesting. Although its verses sometimes seem to ramble, the acoustic guitar picking in the song is enchanting, and the male and female harmonies complement each other beautifully.
“Turn It Around” is another standout. An inspirational song that sounds like a more easygoing version of Imagine Dragons’ “On Top of the World,” its upbeat message manages to seem truly empowering rather than trite. “Colors,” the next track, is chiefly a pretty, but repetitive ditty; however, it briefly transforms into something resplendent mid-song, when emphatic horns and female vocals give it a new dimension.
The rest of the album is a considerably enjoyable listening experience. “Take a Walk” is a cheery anthem that utilizes a stomp-clap beat. “Oh My Dear” is a softly sung ballad that uses distant-sounding electric guitars to create an atmosphere of vulnerability. Much like “Dreamer,” the song has a sound that sets it apart from the rest of the album; it’s a bit reminiscent of X&Y-era Coldplay. “I Don’t Mind”‘s falsetto vocals are captivating, and “Your Mother’s Eyes” is a skillfully crafted love song that sounds honest rather than sappy. None of these tracks feel like filler; they’re all interesting in their own right.
“Signs of Light,” the album’s finale, is a six-minute piano ballad with delicately gorgeous vocals. Fans who feared that the band would “sell out,” take note—far from a ploy for radio play, this track is a raw expression of emotion. After a few minutes of minimalism, a string section arrives, adding to the force of the song’s longing lyrics. When the instrumentation becomes sparse once again and then gives way to silence, the listener is left with a sense of closure.
Signs of Light is simple, but full of sunshine—as its title might suggest. While it’s not an album you would spend hours analyzing from a political and philosophical perspective, the songs are lyrically heartfelt and intriguing, and the members of the band are obviously very musically talented. Time spent listening to Signs of Light is far from time wasted.