If the market is oversaturated with sincere post-hipster guys with acoustic guitars strumming their own slight variations on mellow indie-pop, co-founder of the Elected, Mike Bloom, is at least partially to blame. Between his band’s recently released, underwhelming third album, Bury Me in My Rings, and Bloom’s solo debut, King of Circles, the latter is the superior record, though it still only offers variations on themes and styles that are getting real, real tired.
Just in terms of its too-familiar sound, there isn’t much to distinguish King of Circles from, say, James Vincent McMorrow’s Early in the Morning or Iron & Wine’s Kiss Each Other Clean. Bloom, in producing and mixing the album on his own, at least throws in an occasional horn section or toy piano to try to make things at least halfway interesting, but even those kinds of production flourishes are expected and have been done to death. What redeems the album in terms of its style is that Bloom, unlike many of his contemporaries, actually writes uptempo songs. “Afterthought to War,” “Anything But This,” and “Your Heart Left Town” all make their points succinctly and move along at a brisk pace, rather than at the midtempo shuffle that has come to signify “serious” songwriting.
Particularly on those uptempo cuts, Bloom’s songwriting is sharp, and he proves himself to have an idiosyncratic songwriting voice, choosing some clever, unexpected imagery throughout the album. On “Afterthought to War,” he suggests that, if we’re all doomed anyway, we might as well fall in love, and he plays the song’s somewhat bleak context against a cheery arrangement and a refrain with an exuberant melody. Even better is the reverb-heavy “Red Light, Green Light,” which uses a simple guitar figure and slow, gradual crescendo to build a sense of urgency behind Bloom’s message to a distant lover he can only hope has remained faithful.
The themes of the songs may be familiar, but Bloom makes a genuine effort to explore them in ways that are distinctive. “Butcher’s Paper,” a co-write with Jenny Lewis, is especially vivid, dressing up an otherwise straightforward love song with viscera: “Wrapped up in twine/the butcher’s paper/my bloody heart inside.” It’s that spiking of his well-composed pop songs with novel imagery that makes King of Circles a doggedly likable, if not exactly revolutionary, pop record.