Review - Touché Amoré

"LAM" and "ENT" written on 2 lines in a slope.

Jon B listened to Touché Amoré's latest album, Lament...

It’s no secret that California’s Touché Amoré have built themselves up to be one of the most acclaimed driving forces of screamo music throughout the 2010s. The band got a taste of adulation with their 2009 debut To The Beat of A Dead Horse, but reached screamo eminence with their sophomore Parting the Sea Between Brightness and Me in 2011, with each subsequent record that decade seemingly getting better and better each time. Consistency in their bittersweet melodies and superb, concise songwriting, blended with frontman Jeremy Bolm’s strident but earnest vocal performances and confessional lyricism led to the band developing a significant and fiercely loyal following.

I was personally blown away by 2013’s Is Survived By, an album that I consider to not just be one of the best releases that year, but an album of the decade; a statement which I don’t make lightly. Is Survived By is a landmark in the band’s discography where both their instrumentation and lyricism reached full development. Guitarist Clayton Stevens and drummer Elliot Babin stole the show just as much as anyone else, with the former’s twangy telecaster riffing and the latter’s energetic proficiency fully forming as staples of the band’s sound. Bolm’s lyrics evolved from highlighting personal insecurities into a deeply self-referential introspection on the band members’ lives and musings on his personal life and future.

This being said, many unanimously agree that 2016’s Stage Four is the band’s magnum-opus, with the album acting as a cataclysm of emotions surrounding the loss of Bolm’s mother (the album title being a reference to such, as well as referring to being the band’s fourth record), very much in the same spirit of The Lack Long After by Pianos Become The Teeth. Stage Four was a record that furthered the sonic explorations of the band with lengthier songs and abstemious dabbling’s in clean vocals. Needless to say, the overarching lyrical premise was soul-crushingly devastating, especially coming from a proven wordsmith like Bolm, who communicated his grief in agonising, heart-breaking detail, while maintaining maturity in its cathartic intimacy. 

This brings us on to the band’s highly anticipated fifth album, Lament, almost four years later. Needless to say, expectations for Touché are off the charts, with the emotional gravity of their last album still lingering in the hearts and minds of many. Of course, the weight of such a concept should healthily be treated as a one-off and not re-hashed, leading me to expect Lament’s lyricism to be closer to that of Is Survived By; a premise I’m certainly excited for considering my previous endorsement of it. Aside from this, I’ve enjoyed Touché’s instrumental side just as much as any other element, so I went in with the confidence that I would not be disappointed, considering their previous consistency. So, with these high stakes considered, how does Lament fare?

In similar vein to their previous records, Lament doesn’t waste time with introductions, sprinting out of the starting gate with the rousing Come Heroine. Those familiar with Touché’s established sound will find themselves at home here, and after a long four years, Touché’s speedy, anthemic musicianship welcomes us in as an old, familiar friend. While I wouldn’t consider Come Heroine to the band’s strongest opener (that title is fiercely fought between the initial tracks of their two prior records), it’s an impactful reminder that Touché Amoré are back in full swing; their sound is certainly distinctive.

Going into the title track, it’s clear that Touché’s guitarists are a little keener on the effects pedals this time round, with Stevens’ telecaster sounding equally muffled and reverb-y, as if his riffs are being played under a couple of feet of water. Nick Steinhardt’s accompanying guitarwork seems to endorse in the same effects, leading to the track maintaining a tinge of psychedelia. Feign displays the band experimenting more with their rhythmic passages, with a notable BPM change between verses, while we hear Bolm shift his vocals from his traditional shouts into a border between singing and screaming, similar somewhat to techniques used by Kyle Durfey.

From these first few tracks, it would seem Bolm’s lyrics are more open to interpretation this time round, whereas on previous records they’ve generally been succinct in their respective messages. Come Heroine could potentially be a further reference to his mother, and the title track and Feign could be seen as lyrically intwined in their theme of self-doubt, with Bolm confessing that all he’s doing is “saying the wrong thing at the perfect time” and that he can “feign [being] profound”. A stark contrast to the lyrics of To Write Content off of Is Survived By, where Bolm would insist that he would never fake his feelings in Touché’s music; it seems he expects too much of himself when it comes to incorporating overwhelming emotions into songs. What’s admirable is his ability to turn this insecurity into a lyrical concept in and of itself. Then again, I can picture another listener listening to these tracks and seeing them in a completely different light, so take this analysis as nothing more than two cents. 

Both of the following tracks, Reminders and Limelight, display Touché’s most pop-influenced and catchy sounds to date. Reminders is a considerably upbeat song (despite the contrast of Bolm’s timorous lyrics), utilising chorus hooks and soaring backing vocals to create some melodies that won’t leave your memory too soon. Limelight continues in very much the same way, albeit with the band’s instruments operating as the catchiest elements; Babin’s thumping drumming throughout each chorus leads me to believe this will be a very popular song for live sets. This being what it may, the feature of Manchester Orchestra’s Andy Hull in the song’s second half works surprisingly well, largely due to Hull’s clean vocal style not sounding a million miles away from Bolm in tone (with comparison to tracks like Stage Four’s Benediction).

It’s worth noting that Lament is very well produced and balanced, in the same vein as their last few albums, despite some of the guitar effects appearing a little too muddy at times (though I think this is the fault of the effects themselves rather than audio balancing). Tyler Kirby’s bass work is particularly given freedom within the mix, providing a necessary backing to the melodic riffing on display.

What’s clear to me so far through the record is Touché are keen to move their sound forward with a few bold experiments, rather than stick within their comfort zone. While I think this is admirable, as well as a logical follow-up to the melodies the band dipped their toes into in their previous record, I’m not entirely certain Touché’s new “verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus” songwriting is entirely working. Sure, it’s a tried and tested formula when one wants to make a more infectious, pop-flavoured song, but it doesn’t seem like it fits the band as well as their tighter, one-to-two minute bursts of energy that we would find on Parting The Sea or Is Survived By. More on this later. 

Having said that, Touché re-visits familiar waters for the following tracks, Exit Row and Savoring. The former, while keeping with the reverb-laced effects the band’s already established on the album, feels like a more direct pull from Parting The Sea, especially lyrically. The songwriting is also more reminiscent of old Touché, with clean and distorted verses locking together in a blistering shot of post-hardcore. However, it’s the latter track that steals the show. 

I mean it when I say Savoring is absolutely flawless. Steven’s twangy riffing is at its absolute strongest, creating some of the best guitar lines on the record, interlocking with Babin’s drumming throughout, from intense blast beats to calmer, cymbal-dependent ambience. This could perhaps rank as one of the band’s most memorable tracks overall (though only the future can tell for sure). Bolm’s lyrics shift to impassioned appreciation for an unnamed individual, stating “you make me resolvable”. Assuming this is his partner, this would make the track perhaps the one and only love song that Touché have made thus far. Despite this, Bolm masks his feelings with metaphors and prose, attempting to “broker a deal between [his] head and heart” as a way to stop himself from becoming too overwhelmed, never coming across as juvenile or tasteless.

After such a strong track, Touché Amoré decide to throw a total curveball in our direction, with the bizarrely country-influenced A Broadcast. A track that’s considerably quieter and progressive in its songwriting, the use of high-pitched guitar bends and slides gives us a much more Southern feel, as if we’ve been transported to Texas itself. Does this track work as it should? I’m not entirely sure, but the lyrical mention of being “deep in Texas disconnected” in the previous track would lead me to believe that there’s an obscured connection between them. The change it sound could also be a potential reference to Bolm’s mother, who was originally from small-town Nebraska before moving to southern California. Regardless of conceptual connections, the change in sound is definitely jarring and doesn’t quite fit within Touché’s sound, within this record or any other. However, I do believe this jolting change is fully intentional, and perhaps future listens will enlighten me further.

Touché Amoré seem to have saved some of their best cuts for last, with the excellent I’ll Be Your Host acting as a direct retrospective on Bolm’s struggle with grief on Stage Four. He shouts “put a pink ribbon on to join the pain brigade”, referencing his support of breast cancer charities following his mother’s passing, and suggesting he isn’t good enough for other bereaved listeners to project themselves onto, stating “I don’t want this role, I give it up, but that’s not enough. I’ll be your host against my will.” Amidst some of the more powerful lyrics on offer throughout the album, I’ll Be Your Host is also home to excellent riffs and varied verses, making this the strongest track next to Savoring. The subdued bridge in the song’s second half might be brief, but enunciates how much of a gut-puncher of a track this is. 

The follow-up, Deflector, was understandably released as a promotional single in 2019. Why’s that? Well, I feel Deflector is a good summary track for Lament, with the songwriting maintaining a more traditional structure between its verses and the band’s guitarwork being at its most varied, both in the sense of their riffing styles and in the effects used. The album closes with A Forecast, perhaps being the most lyrically rich song on the record, with Bolm musing on his initial struggle with moving past bereavement, then looking inward at what’s changed within him and how life has continued after his loss, reflecting that he’s “healed more than [he’s] suffered” but remains “still out in the rain, [and] could use some shelter, now and then”. In fact, Bolm directly references things he’s said in interviews, stating he has “found the patience for jazz” due to lengthy hours in his working life as a courier driver between touring (something that the listener would not necessarily know if they didn’t follow Bolm’s interviews). Bolm closes the album with confessing “this is the album closer; I’m still working out its intent. I’m not sure what I’m after, but it couldn’t go unsaid.” The mellow musicianship and clean vocals by Bolm throughout the song leads to a mellow and poignant conclusion, similar to Stage Four’s Skyscraper.

Despite the fact that I have the utmost respect for Touché Amoré’s ambition to stretch themselves beyond their comfort zone, I still find myself missing their aforementioned previous methods of constructing their records, where succinct but memorable tracks would often seamlessly weave into one another for the duration of the record, despite remaining brief in length on an individual basis. In fact, said concise songwriting is almost nowhere to be found on Lament, with most tracks feeling like separate entities rather than tying themselves together, ruining the gripping sense of flow that their initial records had. One might argue that Stage Four was also sparing with the band’s snappier tracks, but the album had a consistent lyrical premise to cling to as a way to keep itself focused. Lament, unfortunately, at times feels like a collection of singles, occasionally having the tendency to meander between different lyrical themes and instrumental experiments. You could perhaps see this as “variety”, but the criticism still stands. In A Forecast, Bolm states that he himself is “not sure what [he’s] after”, and while such self-awareness is admirable, he’s also highlighted the major flaw of the album as a whole: Lament doesn’t feel as clear-cut as their previous efforts.

The band’s exceptional sense of melody and Bolm’s cathartic emotional honesty carries Lament as a worthy addition into the band’s catalogue, but it’s undeniable that the band’s previous virtuosity has backed the record into a corner. It wouldn’t suit the band for them to simple recycle the sound of Is Survived By (which already acted as a perfected result of the sounds the band explored on Parting The Sea), and it would be distasteful to re-hash the concepts highlighted in Stage Four. The towering hype for the album seems to have put the band in a very difficult spot, and the pressure of it is frequently referenced by Bolm several times throughout the record, as well as the self-esteem issues that accompany such a situation.

These things considered, perhaps the experimental and varied approach Touché have taken throughout Lament was the most sensible direction. It would also be wise to consider Lament as a grower, being looked at more fondly as time goes on. However, my current feelings toward the album are mixed, as would be expected by an album that seems intent on throwing a few strange spices into a formula I adore on its own, and I’m not sure if the new tricks they’ve brought always work. Lament is absolutely not a sub-par record; it still provides all the emotional weight and earnest musicianship that one would expect from such a beloved band. The album left me with the exactly the bittersweet joy I was expecting, but the road felt more chipped and inconsistent, and I wasn’t blown away in the same way I once was. And, yet, if it were from any other band, I would feel much more forgiving. Lament is a victim of being a follow-up to two records that Touché Amoré might never top, and that’s its most heart-breaking flaw. None-the-less, I hope to return to it with open arms once the initial expectations have worn off.

Best Tracks: Lament, Feign, Savoring, I’ll Be Your Host, Deflector, A Forecast

Review Copyright Jon B – ©Jon B 2020 All rights reserved.

Images - Amazon, Henry W. Laurisch, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons, Chey Rawhoof, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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