Band of Horses have chugged forth from the billowing “Great Salt Lake” of their previous work to Manifest Destiny incarnate. They’ve gone as far West(ern) as a rock group can travel without going full country. The blurring of genres had served them well on 2010’s Infinite Arms, where “Laredo” represented the comfortable plateau they’d settled upon. They were kings of this mountain that had been scaled by many but truly conquered by so few.
While lamenting in “Laredo” that “I’m at a crossroads with myself,” singer Ben Bridwell prophetically revealed the problem with Mirage Rock. This nurturing of his twangy tendencies all but leaves BOH’s theatrical side in the dust. Bridwell used to bellow into echoing chasms, like on 2006’s moving number “The Funeral.” Now he seems content to prattle on about nothing in particular to the flies on his porch.
Maybe the mirage was that Band of Horses were never a rock outfit at all. Their instincts were born more of classical symphonies coupled with banjo-picking contemplation. Bridwell’s telltale facial hair and South Carolina heritage suggests a return to his roots. He’s right at home in the drawl-drenched refrains of “Everything’s Gonna Be Undone,” digging on the simple acoustic strumming, assuring himself that this shift in sound is his destiny. His group’s past is going up in flames, and he’s finding warmth and comfort in the burn.
The scorched-earth campaign trudges on in “Dumpster World,” a clone of America’s “Horse With No Name,” all modern-world weariness and depressing guitars. A sad chorus gives way to a quaking bridge where Bridwell and his gang command: “Let out all the wolves!” Tyler Ramsey’s six-string attacks like a doomsday machine, clearing away the muck of the vocalist’s frustration. They want nothing to do with the fetid rock ‘n’ roll experience anymore, happy to see it all crumble, as long as they’ve got their instruments and maybe a little booze.
“Yeah, I’m over it,” Bridwell sighs in an uncharacteristically low mumble in album closer “Heartbreak 101.” Over the emphatic riffs of his back catalog? Over Mirage Rock‘s own Kerouac-fueled wanderlust and dustiness? Love? Band of Horses’ critical praise? Whatever the case may be, the song’s lissome violins beckon Bridwell off into a desert sunset — alone. Band of Horses have always capitalized on making solitude sound infinitely gorgeous. But on Mirage Rock, that beauty ignites and disappears too quickly, like embers trying to escape from their source. Ben Bridwell is ready to ride far away from his group’s bedrock, but whether his fans are is the bigger question.