With their name inspired by a short story written by frontman Alex Ebert, after a stint in AA, about a messianic character who gets too distracted by girls to save the world, and with their music borrowed and revised from psychedelic ’70s acts, gospel, and American porch music, Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros sounds like an insufferable breeding ground for nostalgia and feigned self-awareness. Instead, over the course of three albums, the psych-folk group has become a dynamic vehicle for Ebert’s narrative of the sincere, the manic, and the spiritual.
“Better Days,” the opening track on the band’s new self-titled album, manages to lament hardship and pain while simultaneously using rowdy percussion to suggest those “better days” might well be spent on the dance floor. The album is less anthemic and upbeat than the group’s previous releases: When Jade Castrinos sings, “Lay your burden down,” on “Remember to Remember,” the litany of burdens Ebert catalogues on “Life Is Hard” is still fresh in our minds. But joyful ’70s musical touchstones abound, from hand drums and trippy guitars to expansive harmonies. The album moves agilely from hootenanny stompers like “Let’s Get High” to the rockabilly “Country Calling,” and the use of upright bass threads a lively bounce throughout, most notably as a counterweight to Ebert’s falsetto on flower-power tune “In the Lion.” If none of the songs have the immediate, infectious groove of Up from Below’s “Home” or “40-Day Dream,” the album’s heady mix of folly and grandeur doesn’t suffer for it.
The lyrics occasionally break down into generic pablum, but the production maintains enough arresting detail to avoid predictability. Oddly processed vocals, like something from a Flaming Lips track, deliberately gum up the works on “If I Were Free” before the whole thing follows the bass down into a humid blues hollow, while conversation and laughter is unexpectedly laced into the mix of “In the Lion.” These surprising elements add disorder and caprice to the album, a little antidote to the previous treacle-sweet lift of Up from Below. The album’s adventurous musical scope serves to further expand the mythos behind Ebert’s ego-fueled, drug-addled, socio-religious musical experiment.