Bridwell claimed to want to be closer to family during breaks from touring, but Band of Horses has always hinted at country and folk influences, so stylistically, it didn't seem to be too much of a stretch. It took several years and three albums, but with "Mirage Rock," released last week on Columbia, Band of Horses has finally shed the ghosts of sophistication and achieved in recording their most bare bones album to date.
They've abandoned the shoegazy layers and melodically-dense choruses for a slowed, loose interpretation of folk rock. The problem with this is that previously Band of Horses had such a refined indie-pop sense. The band was able to strike to the marrow of gorgeous-sounding songs emanating from their neo-Americana background, creating a style that didn't borrow too heavily from the decades of artists who came before them.
Their recent loss of pop aspect causes "Mirage Rock" to suffer; instead of standing as a definitive Band of Horses release, most of the tracks on this album could have been made by anyone in the past 40 years who really dug "Déjà Vu."
"Mirage Rock" opens strong with "Knock Knock," the album's lead single and the track that sounds most like it was made by an actual rock band. The urgent guitar riff and swooning pitch of the vocals are pulled taut over a susurrus of claps and a catchy chorus, proving that making a decent single is alchemical, and that substance does not equate to frills. The follow-up to "Knock Knock" is "How to Live," another standout that effectively bridges the gap between Band of Horses' languorous, down-home influences and their proven track record of the last few albums.
After these tracks, there's a long and long-winded stretch of what anyone capable of turning to classic-rock radio has heard before. The predecessor to "Mirage Rock" was 2010's "Infinite Arms," a lush and bewitching effort that seems to have been made by an entirely different band. It's not that "Mirage Rock" isn't any good; it's pleasant and lyrically well-written, but it's overwhelmingly uninteresting, or, it was far more interesting when it was made by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.
"Heartbreak on the 101" closes the album, and while it's probably too somber to be a single, it's a plaintive ballad that, while not very complex, retains a low, heartbreaking thrum that can be felt straight through the ribcage. If simplicity is what they were after, then this is the kind of simplicity that Band of Horses should have been aiming for on the rest of the album, but I suppose that a fitting farewell is better than nothing.