Thursday’s got a few undeniable strengths that suggest they will outlive their peers in the screamo scene: unflagging experimentalism, an erudite and talented lyricist, and a nuanced approach to composition that comes through even in the hard, fast numbers that constitute less and less of their output these days. These traits have kept them at the front of the pack of mostly risible, vaguely punk-influenced acts in which screaming switches off with singing. Thursday’s own influences, which include early-‘90s post-hardcore acts like Quicksand and Fugazi as well as the Cure and the Smiths, make them inclined toward slightly subtler songcraft.
A City by the Light Divided, from 2007, found the band fine-tuning a blend of mid-‘90s screamo, post-hardcore, moody synth-pop, and even post-rock in the Explosions/Godspeed vein. Continuing in the style of that fine collection of songs would have made sense, but Thursday has been evolving fitfully since 2003’s War All the Time and have set off on yet another reinvention. Much like that transitional album, Common Existence is, in a lot of ways, a mess. Most of the songs are crammed with too many ideas, and the compositions are too weak to support the weight. Add to that a poor sequence and you get an album that never hits its stride. In places, the album is tremendously affecting, but it’s also the first time a Thursday release is not an unambiguous improvement on its predecessor.
“Resuscitation of a Dead Man” and “Last Call” both aim to begin the album on an urgent note, but the former just sounds shrill while the latter marries aimless verses to a bland chorus, culminating in a phoned-in coda. On both tracks, Thursday strains to incorporate the bracing hardcore once central to their sound with the lush, textured compositions of their later works. The coherence just isn’t there. The albums truly begins with the third track, “As He Climbed the Dark Mountain,” which cuts its surging tempo with a bridge/outro comprised of bending, shimmering guitars and menacing synth notes. It’s the kind of sound the band could base a career around, and, significantly, it’s the only one of the short, fast numbers that works.
Whether you think Geoff Rickly’s atonal yelps are evocative or just shrill, or whether you find his uncompromising earnestness moving or grating, will largely determine whether you turn the record off after the opening barrage or venture into the more experimental tracks that follow. Either way, it’s impossible to listen to the album without paying attention to Rickly’s lyrics, which tend to work in two modes: the abstract and aphoristic kind that read a bit like abstract diary quotations but which don’t tend to be especially interesting (“Love Has Led Us Astray” and “Time’s Arrow”) and the kind in which Rickly plays the observer, with urban panoramas that fixate on the miscellany of city life (ambulances, subways, unhappy weddings, people parting and coming together).
It’s only in the second mode that Rickly’s artistry lives up to the exacting standards implied by the band’s resolute seriousness, with social commentary always coming second to moody impressionism. What is evoked by his descriptions matters far more than their informative function, and what is evoked tends to be isolation, loneliness, and anxiety. “Friends in the Armed Forces” finds Rickly struggling with the losses of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Because its fundamental despondence stops it from making any unambivalent comment, it doesn’t truly qualify as a protest song. But what does moral certitude get you when your friends are dying? Rickly sighs, “I’m sick of tying yellow ribbons,” and by song’s end he’s untying them from every tree he sees. Beneath the trappings of topicality is a perfectly beautiful song about mourning, feeling frustrated and powerless in the face of grief.
It’s unfortunate, then, that the best of Rickly’s writing never gets paired with the band’s best songs. That brilliant pieces like “Circuits of Fever” and “Time’s Arrow” make do with vague evocations while “Resuscitation of a Dead Man” and “Subway Funeral” have fine writing squandered on mediocre tunes means that the album ultimately has fewer excellent tracks than its scattered compositional and lyrical strengths imply it should. Further, on “Unintended Long Term Effects” Rickley screams, “Can a pilot see the distant arc of history?” before reciting a catalog of angst-ridden clichés: bitter pills, shots “in the veins,” rainstorms, “a thousand paper cranes.” It’s a sloppily executed hardcore number that is, frankly, one of the worst the band has ever produced, and its damage to the album’s momentum is far disproportionate to its 2:19 runtime because it comes right in the middle of a strong run of tracks.
Common Existence comes to an end with “You Were the Cancer,” which sounds like a six-minute summary of the whole album. It’s got lovely, ambient verses that don’t work much with the furious choruses, and there’s a synth break in the middle that sounds alien and unsettling, followed by a section where the instruments hum and rattle while screams come up from the bottom of the mix (is this ambient screamo?). The effect is stunning, but rather than run with it, the band tries to rally to a hardcore finale, which ends up being an anti-climax in spite of itself. The band wants to play art-rock, experimental hardcore, stormy pop, and some other beautiful and brutal stuff for which we don’t yet have labels, but they want to play it all at once, and so far they haven’t developed the musical competence to streamline their sonic pluralism into something fit for consumption.