Following the election of Donald Trump to the Whitehouse last year, there were no end of think pieces to be found on online music publications, purporting that the only good thing to come from the businessman’s presidency would be the music written in opposition to his leadership. Of course, many previous political events in the history of the United States have spawned some of the most influential songs, albums and even artists of their respective eras, ranging all the way from Dead Kennedys to Billie Holiday. However, given the flurry of hilariously atrocious anti-Trump and pro-Clinton songs released prior to the election, from Lena Dunham’s Sensual Pantsuit Anthem to Le Tigre’s I’m With Her, it started to seem as if the well had run dry of popular artists who could incite any reflective and nuanced insight into the election through their music. As a result, and with so many people being utterly sick of the pervasiveness of politics in recent times, there arguably comes a stigma with the announcement of any release in the music world that is connected to politics in some way or another. Whilst this is hardly the case with hip hop, for fans of rock, pop and indie music, politically-charged material tends to be very divisive, with a recent example being the mixed reactions with which Father John Misty’s latest album, Pure Comedy, was received by fans. The latest act to throw their two cents into the political arena is Brooklyn folk rockers Woods, with their 10th studio album, Love Is Love, written and recorded immediately after, and in direct response to, Trump’s success in last year’s election. Unlike the likes of Father John Misty, however, the attitude employed by Woods on their latest full-length effort is to write a political record without really tackling any political issues particularly explicitly, with the entire premise of the album’s arc being summed up in the title. Essentially, Love Is Love is a plea for, well, love, presented within a narrative that constructs a love-hate dichotomy, presumably taking cues from the common “love trumps hate” motto conceived prior to the election that has remained popular into Trump’s time in office. In employing such an innocuous and almost inconspicuous means of standing up to the Trump administration, the most controversial aspect of Love Is Love is, ironically, the musical change of pace that this record marks for the band. This tone shift was alluded to on the group’s previous record from last year, City Sun Eater in the River of Light, but has been turned up a notch on Love Is Love, with Woods furthering their jam band influence by concentrating this set of tracks more on the development of some funky grooves, jazzy arrangements and psychedelic jams than on the conventional song structuring with which the band has previously worked. In this sense, despite its political nature, Love Is Love is arguably more focussed on the music and less so on the lyrics than any previous Woods record, with the longest song on here, Spring Is in the Air, being a 10-minute instrumental that takes up a third of the album’s duration, whilst most of the songs tend to feature repetitious hooks as a means of reflecting and reinforcing the swirling grooves that are at the core of these compositions. This being said, however, whilst the comprehensive message of the album is relatively unobtrusive, Woods’ foray into cycling jams of jazzy, danceable psychedelia is largely successful, building on the ideas presented on City Sun Eater in the River of Light as to bring out the best in these unhurried grooves, resulting in a release that is oddly dark at times, despite its bright instrumental arrangements.
The opening title track is one of the most radically different Woods songs the band has yet to release, and yet it provides the backbone of the entire project, with its lead chord structure being referenced further into the album, most explicitly on the closing cut, but also through a haze of horns on the instrumental Spring Is in the Air. Throughout this cut, Woods exhibit themselves at their most stylistically diverse, pulling from funk, jazz and various styles of Latin music, whilst tying these all together in their usual freak folk packaging. Interestingly, there are slight hints of myriad genres of world music to be found across the entire record and, given the premise of the album’s purpose to be to promote global unity and love, not to mention the fact that the world is even pictured on the cover, I can’t help but feel this was a deliberate stylistic shift the group pursued specifically for this album, as to reinforce its lyrical meaning. Considering Woods have seldom referred to stylistic principles of world music this prominently across their previous output, they certainly incorporate such ideas with an impressive amount of cohesion into their usual brand of indie folk. As previously stated, the title track, and particularly its lead melody and foundational chord progression, seem to be heavily influenced by tropes associated with Latin music, which strikes me as likely being a reflection of Trump’s condemnation of Mexican immigration and the country and its populace in general. Even the three-way independence of the drum pattern on this cut evokes the percussive style of certain subsets of samba music, and this steady, disciplined groove is really the tie that binds the whole piece together, allowing the luscious arrangements to build up and simmer down smoothly, whilst providing the basis atop which the sleek guitar jams can flutter about. The overall mellow mood of the song also complements frontman Jeremy Earl’s wispy, falsetto vocals especially well, and Woods do a particularly good job of creating somewhat of a dark atmosphere, even in spite of the dainty, duelling guitar and bass lines and smooth horns that hang in the background. The reprise of the title track at the end of the record, with Love Is Love (Sun on Time), not only provides a nice rendition of the song that’s suited more to Woods’ usual style, but it also seems to tie the whole album together quite neatly. Much of Love Is Love comes across as being focussed on circles, from the imagery of the world and political wholeness to the cycling grooves and swirling psychedelic jams, so the fact that the record itself should come full circle at the end conveys an amount of substance below just the surface level appeal to political unity implied by its context.
Amongst the other tracks on Love Is Love, there is a meeting of familiar and unfamiliar sounds for Woods. Bleeding Blue boasts the brand of indulgent, smooth folk rock that has earned the band such a significant place within the freak folk scene, and this shows, in that this track is perhaps the most well-assembled on the record. Being founded on an interesting chord progression and memorable vocal melody, Woods go to town with the bright trumpet melodies, classy organ embellishments and meandering bass lines, all of which are met with some vibrant production that balances the mix effectively, with the various components of the song piecing together nicely rather than competing for attention. Lost in a Crowd is similarly sweet, with the same use of smooth grooves, wandering melodies and airy production to craft the syrupy indie folk sound for which Woods have come to be known. It’s Hit That Drum and the aforementioned Spring Is in the Air, however, that mark rather surprising stylistic shifts for the group. Given its status as a 10-minute long instrumental, Spring Is in the Air would understandably raise its fair share of eyebrows, but Woods do a relatively admirable job of making the most out of the song’s length. Opening with some whirling, ambient organ drones, the group builds up tension rather effectively with the gradual addition of an ominous bass line, swelling keyboard incidentals and a light drum pattern that slowly takes shape, whilst the main body of the piece allows the lax, Ethiopian-style horns to explore many a wistful melody. With the progression of the song being rather subtle for the most part, perhaps the 10-minute duration is somewhat overblown, although the band creates such a soothing atmosphere that the track breezes by without growing especially stale at any particular point. The most audacious change of pace across Love Is Love is most definitely on Hit That Drum, which is similar in principle to Spring Is in the Air, but with the addition of Earl’s vocals and, ironically, a lack of drums, condensed into a much more digestible runtime. This being said, the ambient textures Woods seemingly attempt to create with bubbling organ swells and murmuring backing vocals aren’t particularly successful, with the whole track sounding rather tinny, especially with the inclusion of the backing vocals that have been pitch-shifted upwards. Moreover, Earl’s delicate singing voice doesn’t fit particularly well above an ambient piece, rather it simply adds to how thin the whole track sounds. Outside of Hit That Drum, however, Woods approach these diverse new influences that they sought to incorporate into their usual stylings admirably well, with the vibe of Love Is Love as a whole, even during its more lacklustre moments, being a sweet mixture of folk, psychedelia and the various styles of world music that are moulded effectively to suit the jam band style.
Ultimately, for all the stylistic risks taken, Woods’ Love Is Love stands as an impressive deviation into territory which the band has either only explored minimally or not at all. Not only does this collection of songs demonstrate the compositional prowess of the group as strongly as ever, it conveys a versatility that has previously not been exhibited so potently. The usual groove-based songwriting of Woods remains, as do the slick atmospheres associated with their style, but they subtly incorporate a diverse pool of influences into this blueprint on Love Is Love, whilst, for the most part, not infringing on their pre-established appeal. Certain moments, particularly Hit That Drum, leave a lot to be desired, however, but are not necessarily beyond the point of being salvageable, rather they simply show a lack of vision in their execution, coming across as somewhat directionless. As for the political arc of Love Is Love, despite the fact that this is the salient reason for its conception, it’s largely inconspicuous and general to the point that listeners unaware of the context of the record could be forgiven for not noticing its political undercurrent. However, the stylistically and culturally diverse scope of the album’s music seems to be a statement in itself and, in this regard, Woods are rather successful in embodying the message that they seek to convey lyrically through the music instead. Overall, therefore, despite an underdeveloped narrative, the musical power of Love Is Love more than compensates for this, seeing a unification of ideas from all different backgrounds that expresses clearly and compellingly the reasons for the album’s existence.
The Vinyl Verdict: 7.5/10