LP5 may once again find John Moreland stretching his artistic boundaries, but the nucleus of what makes him excellent remains intact.
John Moreland isn’t the same performer he was a decade ago – a statement made only more true with his newest album – but one element that remains unchanged is that he’s an anti-star.
Of course, what that actually means has also changed over time. Moreland was once pigeonholed as a writer of sad songs, with a poetic ambiance more suited for critical acclaim than commercial appeal, at least until he signed to 4AD Records and released a more upbeat album with 2017’s Big Bad Luv … and then decided that wasn’t quite for him; “that” being the allure of stardom, not the stylistic shift.
If anything, Moreland’s musical drought over the past three years came from him trying to figure out where to take his music next, rather than worry about the manner in which it was delivered. And by all accounts, Moreland looked to expand upon the stylistic shift from Big Bad Luv by working with producer Matt Pence. So, with the strange paradox of expanding upon those ideas while also finding a part of himself he lost along the way, Moreland’s LP5 sits in a strange space in his discography – a transitional album meant to outline what’s ahead for Moreland, but also one that could have afforded to expand upon its ideas a bit more.
On that note, for as much as LP5 hinted at another sonic expansion for Moreland, it’s another paradox in its own right – an album not quite as adventurous as its predecessor, but also one that finds Moreland incorporating electronic elements into his material, unheard of for him. The strange element about Moreland’s works, however, are that, for as far as Moreland branches off from previous albums, the nucleus of what makes him so compelling is always solid. Here, the drum machines and other electronic elements mostly feel restrained, serving to bolster an underlying groove or strengthen a great melody; and that’s on top of blending in nicely with acoustics with a firm, warm presence and piano for supported atmosphere and melody. In that regard, it’s the little moments that make this a compelling listen, especially when there’s a rich blend of every element: the beautifully rich textures of “Harder Dreams” that only gain more presence as the track progresses; the subtle interplay of skittering keys and the acoustics on “Terrestrial”; or examples of all elements working in tandem on “I’m Learning How To Tell Myself The Truth” or “I Always Let You Burn Me To The Ground.”
It’s a slow burn of an album, and if I were to nitpick, I actually wish it took more chances. The best moments here come with that solid acoustic and piano foundation, if I’m being honest, but when the blast of harmonica comes through on “Let Me Be Understood,” it sounds great (and is likely Moreland’s first folk-rock “anthem”). You wouldn’t expect this for Moreland either, but even when the drum machines and synthetic elements get a little more experimental, like toward the end of “I Always Let You Burn Me To The Ground” or the instrumental “For Ichiro,” they blend in better than expected. But it is mostly low-key throughout, a note on the content, but also a possible example of how Moreland and Pence are still trying to figure out the sound. It’s a good first step, though there’s also a track like “A Thought Is Just A Passing Train,” which, with its stiff groove, underweight organ foundation and horrible blending of Moreland’s reverb-saturated vocals with the hazed-out, curdled attempts at blues, stands as one of his worst recordings.
What’s interesting about LP5, however, is that for as much as Moreland is first regarded as a compelling lyricist, this is the album where those thoughts and ideas support the musicality of the project – not the other way around. I also get the feeling Moreland doesn’t want listeners reading too deeply into his material, especially when he’s disappointed at how those interpretations always turn back toward comparisons between his marriage and personal happiness. Still, his poetic style does feature the sort of dense wordplay that’s meant to be decoded, which, for this album, points back to those conversations of him being an anti-star. The reputation that Moreland garnered all those years ago is one he’s looking to shed, that being the sad, wayward soul constantly beating himself up through song, of course, and the one that led him to an awkward breakthrough as well. In a sense, this is the album where Moreland grapples with his own mortality and how he wants to view himself with whatever time is left. It’s a thematic arc that’s mostly easy to detect, though the subtle tributes to Chris Porter in “East October” and “In Times Between” certainly make it hit that much harder.
Again, in terms of concept and execution, it’s not a far cry from Big Bad Luv, though whereas that album gave Moreland temporary satisfaction, LP5 is him coming down off that high and reassessing what really matters to him. He’s letting go of the impossible expectations he set for himself on “Harder Dreams,” and “I’m Learning How To Tell Myself The Truth” is as blunt in that execution as its title implies. And yet the album is never about Moreland actually getting to that comfortable position, but rather just … trying to get there. “Terrestrial” always imparts a note of optimism before Moreland admits he’s lost his way again. It’s not a far cry, thematically, from his earlier work, but here, he’s at least looking to cut through that darkness to find some stability, rather than ever indulge in it. Basically, like all of Moreland’s albums, there’s a beautiful sort of sadness here, and it’s good to reflect without being stuck in that earlier mindset.
And with whatever changes Moreland has in mind for down the road, he’s managed to find a rare level of consistency that always makes his albums sound just the way they should. Again, though, LP5 feels mostly transitional, and while it is still great and will likely be one of the best albums of the year, it’s also a bit more low-key all around, even for Moreland. At 11 tracks, with two of them being instrumentals, it’s certainly Moreland’s easiest album to digest, and though that may exclude it from conversations of this being his best album, there’s arguably never been a better chance to get on board with Moreland’s music than LP5.
- Favorite tracks: “Harder Dreams,” “Terrestrial,” “I Always Let You Burn Me To The Ground,” “Let Me Be Understood,” “I’m Learning How To Tell Myself The Truth”
- Least favorite track: “A Thought Is Just A Passing Train”