Leapling’s new album Suspended Animation (out now via Exploding in Sound) manages to meaningfully build on the band’s debut record, while at the same time defying the expectations that it set, with a new suite of gorgeously melodic, power-pop-indebted tunes.
In some sense, this shouldn’t be a shock. Leapling’s Dan Arnes has always been more inclined to melody than toward the dissonance and clamor characteristic of so many EIS bands. Even the label’s exemplar weirdo-pop stylists like the late Krill or Palm share more spiritual than sonic DNA with Leapling. If the average EIS band looks back at a group like the Jesus Lizard as a touchstone, Arnes perhaps looks back at Teenage Fanclub.
But even so, Leapling’s full-length debut Vacant Page, which came out a little more than a year ago, suggested that Arnes was as concerned with experimental, sometimes psychedelic, sounds as it was with pop melody. That record in one moment offers simple, Shins-esque melancholy and in the next delivers an unexpected, mathy guitar part – and yet it all dreamily coheres.
Suspended Animation is a little bit different.
For one thing, the band recorded as a trio rather than as a quartet like on the debut (Arnes is joined by bassist RJ Gordon and by new drummer Alejandro Salazar Dyer). For another, while the band by no means abandons its predilection for experimentation, what quickly becomes apparent are the ways in which Arnes’ writing engages very classic pop song-structures in more straightforward ways than on the last album.
That emphasis on structure makes each song feel truly of a piece. And even as there are echoes of pop-greats like the Zombies or Big Star as a function of that song-craft, each track also has its own moments of slinky-dreaminess or fuzzed-out noisiness that are characteristically Leapling.
All of this is to say that Suspended Animation is really impressive.
Listen: “I Decide When It Begins” – Leapling
The record opens with “I Decide When It Begins,” an ambling, jazzy song, the very first lines of which are stellar. Arnes sings:
People call me Mr. Mellow
But it doesn’t mean a thing
If you saw me on the inside…
The less you know
The more I sing
In effect, he flips the script on the listener immediately – especially for those of us who are familiar with Leapling’s music. Even a new listener could be forgiven for thinking that maybe Dan Arnes is a fairly relaxed guy. Despite the words he sings, neither his chill guitar strumming, nor his Ben Gibbard-esque voice suggest prima facie much turmoil.
But these lines serve as a poignant reminder that even the most amiable, inviting art can be fueled by, or be an expression of, something darker than what a superficial assessment suggests. In some sense, by opening with these words Arnes sets up an emotional frame for the rest of the album, and plants the suspicion that there’s a more serious undercurrent to his appealing melodicism.
And over the course of the next few songs there’s ample evidence to suggest that’s precisely the case. On “Alabaster Snow” Arnes sings, “I am broken, just like you,” while burying his Big Star-sounding chord changes under crashing drums. With the track “Shakin’” Arnes plays a rocking, chord-heavy riff on the verses and builds up to the chorus’ confession that, “I’m not the person I wanted to be.” Painful honesty and stark self-reflection turn up again and again.
Listen: “Suspended Animation” – Leapling
Title-track “Suspended Animation” opens with a simple, ringing piano line that immediately draws you in. The bass-playing on the verses is Paul McCartney-esque, and in fact the whole track feels like it could be a stripped-down psychedelic-era Beatles tune (with a Wings string part). Arnes sings on the chorus:
Not for the impatient
But it helps to bring you
Where you want to go
When you find the patience
To accept your limitations
It will leave you here
With nowhere left to go
Cheery as the sound of the music is, the words are ambiguous and possibly a little dark. “Suspended animation” denotatively is to slow down or stop most life-functions to “preserve” an organism for a period of time (think sci-fi movies where the astronauts get put to sleep for the months/years it takes to make the journey).
As a metaphor, it’s difficult to decipher. Does he mean to slow things down until you arrive at a better life situation? Tune out completely?
The second part of the chorus is a little more decipherable – it takes some self-knowledge and self-control to be honest with yourself about limitations. And of course once you “arrive” at your limitations, by definition there’s “nowhere left to go,” being limits and all. But there’s nothing like the clarity and relief that come along with honestly knowing your limitations, and Arnes seems to celebrate that.
Listen: “One Hit Wonder” – Leapling
The title track is followed by “One Hit Wonder.” The name, of course, evokes all the glamour and tragedy of the one, unrepeatable hit song – no doubt many examples of which inform the sound of Suspended Animation. The music is jaunty and evokes Flying Nun bands like the Chills. But lyrically we get a sense of insecurity. Arnes sings:
I’ll be your one-hit-wonder
Just pull me out from under
This paralyzing thunder in my life
But I know it’s not right
Listen: “Time Keeps Tickin'” – Leapling
But the crux of power-pop is the love song and closer “Time Keeps Tickin’” is a great love song – one the best tunes on the album – and it ends things on a more cheerful note. The track begins with a repetitive little guitar part before the vocals kick in, and his melody on the verses is earworm material. On the second verse, Arnes’ string arrangement comes in and really elevates the song. He sings on the chorus:
Time keeps tickin’
But I think I’ll be stickin’
Whatever you do
It’s earnest and sweet – just fundamentally satisfying pop music. And the funky interplay of his guitar and the strings on the song’s outro is icing on the cake. Front-to-back, Suspended Animation is filled with great pop tunes. Dan Arnes and Leapling take the group’s underlying melodic capabilities and place them front and center, meaningfully engaging classic power-pop tropes and filtering them through the dreamy, psych-pop idiosyncrasies that made the band’s debut so compelling.
Suspended Animation – Leapling
cover photo © Anna Sian
album artwork by Thomas Mazzarella