When you’ve been following the independent music scene for long enough, you start to see the same story-lines play out over and over again. There’s the classic “first album was solid, got signed to a bigger label, second or third album was great and got them huge” trajectory (Mitski, Father John Misty). Slightly less commons is the “put out a slew of good to great records over years before finally breaking through” trajectory (The National, Animal Collective). But by far the saddest is the “their first record was amazing but they never quite got back there” trajectory, unfortunately seen most poignantly in beloved bands like Bloc Party and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. From the get-go, New York-based pop/rock duo Sleigh Bells seemed destined for this tragic narrative. Their debut album, 2010’s Treats, was shockingly good. Composed of nothing more than massively loud, distorted guitar riffs, some clicking drum tracks, and vocalist Alexis Krauss’ alternatively sweet and aggressive vocals, the combination of bubble gum pop and ear-bleeding rock licks hit a sweet spot no one knew was there; but there was a hint that the record could be too gimmicky for the formula to succeed ever again.
But what could the band do? Their whole essence was built off of one idea, but either staying the course or deviating from it seemed like paths headed downhill. 2012’s follow up, Reign of Terror, moved into darker, slower, more haunted territory, without too radically altering the Sleigh Bells sound, a move that was actually pretty solid (at least I thought so). Then 2013 brought Bitter Rivals, which doubled down on the bubblegum without introducing any new ideas, making for a record more annoying than anything. The music world heaved a collective sigh, forgot about Sleigh Bells, and turned their attention back to Vampire Weekend. Bringing us back to 2016, three quiet years later, Krauss and guitarist/producer Derek Miller must be completely overhauling the band, right? Preparing to release a collection of songs that exhibit their sound radically reinvented and prove the naysayers wrong, right? Nope! In a shocking turn of events, Sleigh Bells has spent the past three years writing the same ten songs they’ve already written three times.
A couple months ago, when the duo released Jessica Rabbit’s first single, “Hyper Dark,” I was cautiously optimistic. The track was indeed dark, synth-based, less reliant on big guitar riffs without compromising the group’s signature sound, and introduced some atmospheric dynamics not really seen before in Sleigh Bells’ music. But then they released the opening track, “It’s Just Us Now,”and my mildly mild expectations were immediately thrown to the wolves. The song isn’t awful, and the riff is actually pretty catchy, but it’s just exactly everything Sleigh Bells has ever done, plus a completely unnecessary and jarring transition from the verse to a slower chorus (to quote a YouTube comment: “Artsy ≠ Good”), as well as some of the most asinine lyrics Krauss has ever sang, belting in the chorus: “And if you die, I wanna die with you! And lay us down for good!” You’re not trailblazing new territory here Alexis; Romeo and Juliet was written in 1597.
To be fair, Sleigh Bells has never really been a lyrics band. Their best songs contain relatively generic carnal imagery comparing boyfriends and relationships to violent deaths, savage animal behavior and earth-shattering rock music. Their best song, “Rill Rill”, actually paints an interesting portrait of popularity, likely stemming from Krauss’ days as a high school teacher. But peeking into the lyrical content of the choruses of Jessica Rabbit’s songs is an exercise in masochism. “Can’t Stand You Anymore” is one of the record’s best tracks, featuring a catchy, sweet melody and a solid chorus that isn’t tricky but incorporates just enough production bells and whistles to stand out. But when Krauss sings, “Bombs don’t compare to the trouble you bring me! I just can’t stand you anymore!” I can’t help but think of what more politically minded artists would make of her casual, melodramatic comparison to devices meant to kill humans.
A few of these songs, while a solid notch below anything on Treats, wouldn’t seem too out of place on Reign of Terror. I like what’s going on in “Crucible,” with its squealing synth riffs and vague but kind of cool turn of phrase (“I’ll cut my hair with a pocket knife”), as well as “Lighting Turns Sawdust Gold,” which is the best display of what Jessica Rabbit could have been had the band taken a half-Treats, half-CHVRCHES overdrive-synthpop approach to the record. But at four songs and ten minutes longer than a typical Sleigh Bells record, Jessica Rabbit would have been twice as strong if distilled down to a four song EP. Every other song is either generic Sleigh Bells to the point of parody (“Unlimited Dark Paths,” “Baptism By Fire”) or features some immense flaw, such as the awful to the point of unlistenable lyrics in “Rule Number One” (“Mostly okay but I’m bleeding profusely / Mostly okay, but only on Tuesdays // Pop Rocks and Coke make your head explode”).
Treats was great because it was unexpectedly edgy while remaining fun, catchy, and above all, loud. But in 2016, when Death Grips not only exists but is on every music nerd’s radar, does anyone think this is edgy? When lyrics are playing an increasingly important role in separating standout indie rock acts from the rest, is anyone inspired by Krauss’ fourteen-year-old emo poetry enough to want Jessica Rabbit over either Treats or Reign of Terror? Sorry Sleigh Bells; you’re the 2010s’ Bloc Party.