The Polyphonic Spree
The Fragile Army
t’s not every day that you toss on a Polyphonic Spree album—if you’re not feeling skipper, its relentless sonic optimism and ludicrous concept grates. Screw it, though: I had supportive parents, luck in love, and a good week at work so I’m about as well-positioned as anyone to enter a staring contest with Tim DeLaughter’s joy-mongering.
Truth is, though, Polyphonic Spree albums are hard to digest even for the preternaturally smile-y. The Fragile Army’s levels are pumped to the sky, resulting in a chirpy maelstrom of voice and indiscriminate instrumentation that stretches end-to-end. “For an optimum listening experience,” the booklet advises me, “please load the album into your digital media player as one complete track.”
The Polyphonic Spree are a genius marketing ploy—and I mean that in the most general, “generating interest about oneself”-way, not some “they sold out” nonsense—because DeLaughter is a mid-level power-pop tunesmith, and yet a whole ton of people, like my mom, know about his band. And about those robes (this time out, they’re fatigues). Indie rock nation might have to admit that, despite some pretty major digressions in tone and subtlety, the discernible differences between Arcade Fire and the Spree are negligible, and that DeLaughter was rocking this whole “music-as-community-as-release-as-family-as-salvation” rig years before Win Butler Bono’d his way into our living rooms. For proof: check the title track’s misty, unadorned intro or “Guaranteed Nightlife”’s ascendant guitar verse/bridge (um, it’s unclear).
Questionable recording techniques and art direction aside, Army isn’t wholly unattractive, and the Spree have the sort of profile that inspires you to scroll through the album wondering if they’ve got a career-redeeming single on here somewhere, especially because DeLaughter’s endless march of unspecific articles—as many we’s and them’s and you’s and it’s, without ever properly establishing context—are more tolerable in one resplendent modern rock single. The single never materializes, though “Watch Us Explode (Justify)” might come close were it not for its weirdly unsure chorus— “Justify all your phases! / When we’re human / We’re always guessing.” On the other hand, we’ve got “Guaranteed Nightlife,” which brings the band closer still to the Andrew Lloyd Webber show-ending dustup they’ve been threatening us with for years and “We Crawl,” which approaches real rock-band dynamics with a choral string ensemble and obvious verse/chorus splits. Too bad it’s a chore lyrically, even for DeLaughter: “We try hard / We crawl far / On our way today / Day after day.”
Lacking an obvious summertime hit, Army leaves the Spree in roughly the same position they’ve been in since “Light & Day” made them mini-phenoms five-or-so years ago. Their community approach co-opted by a properly high-minded, spotlight-groping rock act, the Spree remain a vital, relevant artist only for Volkswagen advertising execs and anyone who takes the last five minutes of “Scrubs” episodes too seriously. The best thing to be said about making it through The Fragile Army unscathed? You’re probably pretty happy.