“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately… .” So said Henry David Thoreau in Walden, his famous account of the years he spent in a secluded cabin in the forest, the lonely years that fueled his spiritual and intellectual reawakening. These days, living deliberately seems impractical, especially when a credit card and an iPhone carry more power than a bag full of camping supplies. Nevertheless, the idea of abandoning the comforts of the civilized world for a life in the wilderness still continues to resonate with the Transcendentalist in all of us, and it is this Walden-y mindset that pervades The Sticks, the fourth full-length album from Canadian rockers Mother Mother.
A concept album concerned with themes of isolation, paranoia and dissatisfaction with modern society, The Sticks stands as the darkest, most ambitious project in the quintet’s catalog to date. Gone is the colorful, instrumentally-rich folk playground that was Eureka, the band’s 2010 release and an undiscovered indie classic. In its place are the thorny, mud-caked dredges of stormy arena rock and surly ballads. With its grandiose sulk and its Metric-like production, lead single “Let’s Fall In Love” stands in polar opposition to “Baby Don’t Dance,” Eureka’s bubbly New Wave standout.
The moodier soundscapes are accompanied by a more pronounced eschatology, filtered through the signature wit of frontman Ryan Guldemond: Whether he’s foreshadowing the end of things in creepy opening sketch “Omen,” cheerfully awaiting the inevitable in the punchy pop of “Latter Day,” or simply, well, “Waiting For The World To End,” Guldemond spends a lot of time on The Sticks fretting about Armageddon; now that 2012 has come and gone, you almost want to reach through your headphones, grab him by the shoulders and tell him that the Mayans were wrong. More often than not, the songs lean toward the melodramatic, and while theatricality has always been an integral component of Mother Mother’s rock trickery, songs like “Waiting For The World To End” and “The Sticks” crumble under too much created tension and not enough of the understated snark that made the band so likable in the first place.
Unsurprisingly, then, The Sticks’ best moments come when Mother Mother stops living deliberately and just starts living. New single “Bit By Bit” is a hoedown from hell, full of sass and glam-rock glitter; “Dread In My Heart” tackles the album’s greater concerns with an ease that’s more affecting than the frenzy of the production numbers, while simultaneously accomplishing the difficult task of transforming a line like “There’s a godawful shitty feeling of dread in my heart” into one of the most hummable, humble little hooks of recent memory. And “Let’s Fall In Love” is the record’s lead single for a reason—it’s the first time the band’s hit us so forcefully with a full-on, folk-less rock song, and it begs to be played again and again.
This isn’t a question of whether or not Mother Mother is capable of ambitious musicianship; their willingness to go topsy-turvy with instrumentation and song structure and keep the listener guessing has made them big stars in Canada and, most likely, soon in the States as well. But ultimately, this escape into The Sticks is too self-aware, too deliberately alive, to achieve the artistic clarity that Thoreau got from his time in the boondocks.