The Dears’s fourth album, Missiles, is a confession of turmoil and collapse. The band attempts to express feelings of anxiety and failure through what is probably the most un-hip of all contemporary devices: allusions to spirituality—specifically, Christianity. The album’s first song, “Disclaimer,” warns: “See I called out to the Son of God and I got a response/I need more/Come back/Gotta get through to you/Come back/I’ll get through to you/I ain’t going back.” New Atheists will want to steer clear because the Dears’s leader, Murray Lightburn, traffics in religious jargon, with both reverence and skepticism, for the duration of the record.
Similar to how Isaac Brock grappled, brutally, with existentialist dread on Modest Mouse’s The Moon & Antarctica, Lightburn’s spiritual crisis is a wrestling match with himself about his faith. Brock started M&A with the statement, “Everything that keeps me together is falling apart/I’ve got this thing that I consider my only art of fucking people over” and concluded that “the one thing you taught me about human beings is this: They ain’t made of nothing but water and shit.” Lightburn’s spiritual angst is less vicious, but still resolves with a harsh loneliness: “Once had a savior from child to teenager/But now I’m a man, a full grown man/Spirit’s been crippled and feeling a little run down…You have to forgive me/You just have to forgive me/I’ll make it right/I’ll make it through.” His tone seems to indicate that his solution to the God problem is as individualistic as John Lennon when he sang, “God is a concept by which we measure our pain…I just believe in me.” The speaker is alienated from the possibility of God, but still struggles to remain open to regain some form of redemption and relief that can bring comfort and security, even if he will have to do it alone.
The CD itself is a clever physical artifact. The lyric sheet is designed like a user’s manual for a piece of audio equipment, complete with a table of contents, instructions and schematics. Given the content of Missiles, the irony of its packaging is obvious: Unlike wiring a machine properly, there are no reliable criteria for success when trying to cope with life. And while the lyrics of the record focus on questions and moods that cannot be explained or resolved with confidence, the standard to judge the success of an owner’s manual is whether the “equipment” works.
For every interesting and bold move involved in the writing and packaging of Missiles, however, the musical orchestration and production of the record is problematic. While the press kit assures me that the Dears are an extraordinary and grandiose live act, it also describes the album’s arrangements as “stripped-down.” Missiles seems to aspire to the intricacy of the E Street Band or the lusciousness of Broken Social Scene, but the often the arrangements are slick and overproduced. “Saviour” is comprised of a slow, plodding beat and accented with a woozy horn section that ends with a children’s choir, making for what sounds like an underwhelming, reheated version of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”
Ultimately, no one track is executed as well as the divine musings of Morrissey’s “I Have Forgiven Jesus” or R.E.M.‘s “New Test Leper,” but Missiles is nonetheless a devout statement of struggle. It is unafraid to place its anxiety in concrete theological terms instead of settling for trying to be loosely impressionistic.