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For The Sake Of Bethel Woods (Bella Union)

There is a song midway through this first Midlake album in almost a decade that is both un-Midlake (in sound and subject matter) and yet almost quintessential Midlake (in tone and spirit), and it sums up this record. Or at least its path through routes old and new that eventually blur into one.

Noble feels barely tethered to its electronic underpinnings, almost lighter than air as Eric Pulido begins singing with a hushed, Elliott Smith intimacy. It fills out some more as drums build a low-key pattern and the bass plays almost as a hum rather than a rhythm, over which the breathy keyboards swell and subside. Around Pulido occasionally echoes an indistinct high male voice, not quite in response but not exactly directly connected either.

There are hardly guitars, no flute, no escalation of note or harmonies, and it returns to its lightness after the thickening which might pass as a climax. It just exists for six minutes, but as if it had been there already before we tuned in, and continues beyond our time with it.

Within it Pulido sings as if from the perspective of drummer McKenzie Smith – whose son, Noble, was born with a rare brain disorder – talking to his baby. It’s soft and tender, canvassing the shock of the discovery, the thoughts of a future, and then the joy that envelops this relationship as connection and the unfettered pleasure of a child just experiencing the world as it is, give substance to everything.

There are no historical or anachronistic references, there are no metaphors or allusions, and there is no conclusion. It is just starkly personal, purely in the moment, and nothing like they’ve ever done before.

However, in its ability to be emotionally present and connect, with or without words; in its sense of understanding and acceptance – and, yes, in its sheer attractiveness – it feels as true to this Denton, Texas band as anything they’ve ever done.

Noble, is not the only song that might be considered unexpected here (well, unless you own their very first album, Bamnan And Silvercork, anyway). There’s Glistening, with its winking guitar motif and irregular timing that feels like a borrowed math rock track; and there’s Dawning, where a kind of Steely Dan cool groove hovers around.

None of these are the shimmering antique folk meets psychedelic rock of the two albums which made their reputation, The Trials Of Van Occupanther and The Courage Of Others. But none of them feel out of place either, much in the way that Antiphon, the chunkier 2013 album made in the wake of the departure of original singer and lead writer, Tim Smith, felt more like exploratory deviations within the same forest. Just later at night, in a colder, harder winter.

Indeed, For The Sake Of Bethel Woods draws comfortably from what you might say is both sides of the band.

The title track has a brisk propulsion and prominent piano, with an almost intrusive bass leading the way, but there’s an overlay of searching in the vocals; The End, mixes a trippy overlay with proggy innards, a wistful flute with an inquisitive guitar; Feast Of Carrion opens with the feel of a stone room, a fire in the furthest corner from those sat below the salt, and even as the ancient synthesiser calls with light warning, the flute responds with flighty wit; and Commune puts you inside a warm room, a cloak of bodies around one chair, and is gone almost before you register.

Lyrically, the balance between ye olde and the new world tilts a bit more to the modern, at least in the sense that it feels like these are attitudes applicable to contemporary issues. There are gaps in the lives of the people here, but not ones that are going to stay unfilled. Not by some magical thinking or wishful thinking either, just trust and hope.

Which brings up something key about this return. Like many, when I heard the news of a Midlake reformation I thought that’s nice, and was mildly curious – there was a deep residue of fondness existing after all. But I also thought, how will it fit into my life in 2022 compared with 2006 and 2010 when my head and heart and days were something different, and the band meant something different.

What I wasn’t expecting when playing the album was how perfect for the moment it was, how it seemed built for the emotional upheavals that seem to occur on a daily basis these days. With its examination of grief and rebuilding, of legacy and memory, it offers comfort in the way they did more than a decade ago as summed up by the Van Occupanther song Branches and the line “it’s hard for me but I’m trying”.

This time they’re saying “we know you’re trying, so are we, and there is a path”. Of course, that probably says more about me than them, but that’s why albums like this can work.


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