Artist: Paper Route
Album: Real Emotion
In Brief: A more expansive and immersive album than Paper Route’s first two, that stretches their sound in a lot of interesting ways while remaining true to their band-driven synthpop/electronic rock origins. Absence is a tough record to beat, but this one comes darn close.
Paper Route‘s third full-length album, Real Emotion, is one that I’d like to describe as my most anticipated of the year, except that I spent most of the time leading up to its release unaware that they even had a new album in the works. I should have suspected as much, considering the band had worked a new single or two into their setlist when I saw them open for MuteMath back in April. But in the four years that have passed since their second album, The Peace of Wild Things, I feel like they’ve put out at least an EP’s worth of singles and left-field cover songs, so I guess I didn’t take the presence of a new single as a clear indicator that an album was forthcoming. Hearing the new singles live for the first time, they seemed to be in the vein of the more pop-oriented material that got the most visibility on The Peace of Wild Things, so while I enjoyed the overall sound and melancholy feel of those songs, they didn’t get me as amped up as the more musically intense or darkly ambient tracks from either of their past albums. I really wasn’t sure what to expect from this one – and I think I ended up getting a lot more than I bargained for, in the best possible way.
I tend to view Paper Route as the yang to MuteMath’s yin – both are electronic bands who owe a great debt to 80s music, and both can swing back and forth between optimism and cynicism depending on the song. They paired incredibly well on tour. But while MuteMath is well-known for their sheer energy and musical chops, Paper Route seems to have yet to break through to the same level of popularity. Their music is every bit as catchy, but it’s more cathartic, not necessarily the kind of thing you’d reach for when you need a pick-me-up like a lot of MuteMath’s stuff is. It’s more “reflect on your pain and nurse your wounds” type of music, at least if you play close attention to the lyrics, which tend to focus on relationships, especially the kind that end in a lot of heartbreak and post-mortem analysis. JT Daly has one of those voices that communicates the brokenness well, and that can veer into a soulful (for an electronic band, anyway) sort of falsetto just when a song needs it most, and it keeps a lot of their lyrics from sounding overly angsty. And I don’t mind the focus on melancholy material that might keep some listeners at a distance, because their debut album Absence really helped me work through some hard stuff back when it was new, and I feel indebted to the band for that, in a way. I don’t expect them to keep making the same album over and over, but when they can evoke a lot of those same feelings while covering more musical ground than they have before, as they’ve done on Real Emotion, I can only consider it a success.
The biggest change for the band between records always seems to be that they lose a key member. Between albums one and two, it was co-lead singer and songwriter Andy Smith. This time around it was drummer Gavin MacDonald. For such a percussion-heavy band to lose their main percussionist might seem like a blow, but they’ve honestly compromised nothing in that department as far as I can tell – both the programmed and live rhythms heard in most of these songs are catchy as hell, and they remind me of the urgency and density of a lot of my early favorites. They’ve also made touring member Nick Aranda a full member of the band, meaning they have a lead guitarist for the first time, and as a result a few more of these songs are riff-driven than Paper Route’s past work. It’s a good fit for the band. When a band known for working a lot of electronic magic tries to go more organic, sometimes I feel like they can lose a bit of their unique charm, but in Paper Route’s case, it doesn’t sideline the keyboards or the influence of decades’ worth of electronica. Acoustic guitars and even some orchestral bits work their way into a few of these songs, and often the results are quite heavenly, even if a few songs doesn’t start out as “synth-y” as Paper Route fans might be used to. All in all, they’ve taken the loss of a key member as a challenge to up the ante, and it’s paid off for them big time.
While Real Emotion is Paper Route’s longest album, with a whopping 16 tracks, don’t let that intimidate you if you’re a potential new fan on the brink of diving in. Four of these tracks function more as interludes, meaning it’s really just a tad longer than their 12-track masterpiece Absence, and the sonic journey it takes you on strikes a lot of the same emotional chords. They strike a keen balance on this record between instant accessibility and the kind of depth you can only appreciate after coming back to a song several times, so there’s plenty to get you through – even some great singles showing up rather late in the game – even if you don’t latch on to some of the slower and more pensive material right away. Some of that material is where the most surprising changes occur – the organic and electronic elements blend in fascinating ways, and Daly seems to stretch himself vocally in ways that he’s only hinted at before. Despite a few moments that might linger a hair longer than they really need to, Real Emotion is a beautiful and tragic record that doesn’t overstay its welcome, that gives Paper Route all kinds of future avenues to expand into while reminding me fondly of my reasons for first falling in love with the band, and that may well be the perfect pop record of 2016 (by my personally skewed standards, of course).
“Profess your love, ’cause a storm is bound to come!” The melodramatic, echoing voices in this short track foreshadow a song that will appear a little later in the album. It’s an unusual way for Paper Route to start things off, but it certainly grabs my attention.
2. Writing on the Wall
Getting things revved up is this track, with its jerky guitar movements and distorted, somewhat shrill vocal effects , certainly an abrupt change of pace from the slow intro track, and for Paper Route in general. I’m used to a lot of their stuff being dense and high energy, but this is one of the few times I’d go so far as to call their music “abrasive”. (The bridge of “Gutter” might be the one other time.) I really had to get used to this one. It’s plenty catchy, and it follows in the grand Paper Route tradition of recounting what went wrong in a relationship (in this case, the self-destructive tendencies of a person who didn’t seem to want to be in one to begin with). But JT’s sprechesang technique in the verses, along with the overwhelmingly loud chorus vocal, made it a tough sell for me at first. The smoother backing vocals chiming in to give the verse a little melody certainly help, and the song overall has certainly grown on me over time. It’s got just the right balance of world-weary wisdom and bitterness to justify its hyperactive sound.
Paper Route channels its inner Tears For Fears on this track, which boasts a confident syncopated rhythm, a cascading electronic piano melody, and a falsetto vocal intro that helps to drive the song’s intro in the red before it settles into pure, nostalgic synthpop goodness. It’s one of the band’s most insightful songs, taking a break from the usual analysis of a failed relationship and finding a man on the rebound, asking himself if he’s got the courage to truly be himself in a new relationship. He knows the woman he’s dating is probably putting up just as much of a front as he is at first, hiding past scars and whatnot, and there’s a certain joy to be found within this timid dance of letting the person into his hobbies and hopes and dreams and hoping this all braces her well enough for the inevitable “I’ve got some baggage” discussion that will follow. Having been in that sort of a “damaged goods” place when I was first dating my wife, I can certainly relate to this tale of timid mutual discovery: “I play my favorite songs when I’m driving you home/You let your hair fall down when you know we’re alone/It’s such a careful dance when your feet have been cold/The only way to defend, we can pretend.” Some pop songs are simply fun and catchy and that’s all they need to be, but this one somehow manages to be incredibly vulnerable and downright euphoric at the same time. One of the band’s all-time best, right here.
Though this song has plenty of fire in its belly, I can assure you that it sounds absolutely nothing like the theme from Chariots of Fire. (Just in case you were wondering. You probably weren’t.) One of the most furious drum loops that the band has ever concocted leads the way, and there’s sort of a metallic sheen on the darker-tinged melody this time. Lots of fatalistic lyrics about love and war and someone giving up the fight way too soon here, and while I haven’t quite worked out how exactly chariots fit into the analogy, I can definitely say that this is the sound of a man at the end of his rope. JT’s falsetto in the bridge as he cries, “I’m losing my faith! I’m losing it all! Where’s the blood, where’s the blood?” is downright chilling. It’s so perfectly balanced with the band’s keen ear for unforgettable pop hooks, and with Nick Aranda’s grimy guitar riffing. The song is an adrenaline rush that doesn’t feel like a repetition of anything they’ve done before, but that leaves me as happily exhausted at the end as “Carousel” did all those years ago.
And now it’s time for… a really slow, spacious piano ballad? We’ve heard some beautifully understated ballads and ambient pieces from this band before, but they’re usually not this early in an album’s track listing, nor are they such an abrupt change of pace after a string of intense, up-tempo songs. This is where the vocal chant from “Intro” comes full-circle, and I’m not sure whether to be more surprised and baffled by how a piece that seems intended to bookend the record shows up so early on (it honestly sounds a lot like a “build up emotion for the grand finale” type of a song), or the fact that they clearly thought this one thematically important enough to warrant a separate track echoing its chorus, and yet they couldn’t be bothered to title it. Pacing and titling nitpicks aside, I really do appreciate the slow burn here. JT’s lyrics have an almost spiritual bent to them: “A guiding light/Burning all my blue to white/You’re the river I’m the land/Take my hand, take my hand.” The slow burn as simple piano and voice builds up to a refreshing climax full of electronic keyboard flourishes and fervent backing vocals is really well done. Yet due to the somewhat repetitive lyrical pattern, which feels like it’s all chorus and no verse or bridge, I do feel like there’s a little something missing here.
6. Blue Collar Daydream
This two-minute instrumental piece seems designed to let the mood of the previous track linger for a bit before we dive back into more up-tempo fare. I don’t hate it, but it does seem to reinforce the idea that this might work better if it showed up somewhere deeper in the tracklisting. Six minutes of relatively calm reflection seems like a bit much given the massive build-up of momentum that came before it.
7. Real Emotion
The title track, with its slightly dissonant chiming percussion, its bouncy mid-tempo beat, and some ghostly synth effects that seem to deliberately waver off-key, has a strangely Christmas-y feel to it. Maybe it’s the percussion and the overall rhythm of it making me think of jingle bells? Interestingly, I’m not thinking of the stereotypical white snowy Christmas, but rather the grey, rainy kind, somewhere in a big city’s downtown core, with tires squealing on the wet pavement as cars pass by throngs of gift shoppers. My overactive imagination aside, this is yet another track that deviates from what I’d expect of Paper Route but delivers an intriguing result in the process. A man torn up over the “heavy devotion” that renders him unable to let go of a past love seems to be picturing a life with her in his mind’s eye that he was unable to commit to, but that now sounds like pure domestic bliss in comparison to his dull bachelor life: “I see a garden and a road/Evergreen and indigo/If you wait, I can be there/With miles and miles of flowers planted in a row/Love, I’m nearly halfway home/If you wait, I will be there.” I love that it’s artful in its description, and yet totally unpretentious. These guys wear their hearts on their sleeves and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
8. Mona Lisa
Sorry, head-in-the-clouds hopeless romantics. We’re going back to the bitterness now. This one’s a mildly humorous takedown of a person who is far too full of herself. Unlike “Writing on the Wall”, it doesn’t use sheer force to air its dirty laundry; it’s more of a mid-tempo synthpop track, using a well-timed build to a falsetto vocal climax to let you know JT’s absolutely had it with this poseur. Whoever she is, she thinks she’s got stuff, and is far too used to guys fawning all over her, to the point where it’s skewed her idea of how relationships are supposed to work: “You think it’s love because you want it bad enough.” The song aims for nothing less than to short-circuit her narcissism by letting her know how undesirable it truly makes her. (I personally like to think of Tom Haverford’s supremely obnoxious employee/psycho girlfriend Mona Lisa Saperstein from Parks and Recreation when I listen to this one. It’s a perfect fit.)
9. Second Place
Much like “Calm My Soul” on their last album, when a Paper Route song starts off much more simply and organically, it takes me a while to figure out how much I actually like it. I’m a bit spoiled by all the ear candy in a lot of their other songs, I guess, so hearing a laid-back drum beat and acoustic guitar as the main ingredients here kind of throws me for a loop. This pushes the heartfelt lyrics and a simple but effective melody to the forefront, and as the band starts to work in some electric guitar and subtle electronic elements, I gradually begin to see how well it fits into the overall flow of the record. This one seems to be about underdogs and losers finding kinship with each other. There’s no bitterness or even sarcasm to be found here – it seems to have been written from a genuine place of companionship and admiration. For me the most intriguing part of the song is when the final verse says “Without tradition, new things die/Well, this changes everything” – a wonderfully cryptic turn of phrase that I keep turning over in my head – and the song itself seems to change on dime, breaking into a still slow, but majestic, outro in 6/8 time, bending the melody and vocal hook of the song to fit this new pattern, eventually collapsing into a sonic whoosh that leads us crisply into one of the album’s lead singles.
10. Laugh About It
This was the new single at the time when I saw Paper Route live back in March, and at the time I really wasn’t sure what to make of its sampled handclaps and its breezy, acoustic pop sort of feel. The heavy dose of sarcasm is what makes it work. Once the electric guitars come in, it almost feels like they’re sneering at you, while the keyboard melody works as a sort of schoolyard taunt. I’m making it sound more obnoxious than it is, honestly – it’s fairly easy on the ear, but what really catches my attention is the way JT uses this one to laugh at his own misfortune. He’s got a list of psychological ailments a mile long, and the meds to go with them, and he seems to be insinuating that he’d rather be honest about his faults and his working-class background than pretend to be a snob. The pieces of the puzzle are really fitting together, if you take this one as a rebuttal to the expectations of the “Mona Lisa” character who seems to want to make him into something he’s not.
Much like “Intro” did for “Untitled”, this song takes the chorus of an upcoming song and gives it the slow, melodramatic vocal treatment. In this case it’s directly positioned as an intro to the song it’s referring to, which I think works a little better. (And since Lara is a “long lost love” character from the novel Doctor Zhivago, which I remember watching the movie of ages ago in high school, the title actually makes sense this time around.)
This one’s been around for a few years (first appearing on a Ten Out of Tenn compilation, I think), but as a stand-alone single without the context of an album, I only had passing interest in it. Yet given its proper place in the track listing, this one has really come to life for me The beat-driven synthpop feel, the emphasis on vocal sampling, and the minimal lyrics sort of remind me of something M83 would do (with a possible nod to Depeche Mode in the sampled vocal melody). I’m not going to pretend there’s some grand, deep and meaningful connection to the book/movie – the song apparently started out as an in-joke when bassist/keyboardist Chad Howat, knowing that JT often referenced the film, decided to write a song with “Zhivago” as a placeholder in the hook, and it just ended up sticking. The sentiment “Look at all the love that I’ve found without you” rings loud and clear as the central theme of the song, letting us know that the person scarred by a lost love is finally moving on, and will not spend all of eternity simply mourning the past. I love how the drum fills and sampling gradually come to a boil as the song reaches its big finish. It’s definitely another instant classic for the band (despite my personal delayed reaction to it).
Now here’s an acoustic-oriented number that I didn’t have to warm up to. Even when it’s out of character for a band to do something like this, I tend to respond better when the guitar is finger-picked, meaning there’s more of a prominent melody to it than just same basic chords being strummed. Vocally, it’s one of JT’s most emotive pieces, painting a lyrical picture of a guy who’s mentally and physically exhausted from mourning his loss, but who seems to finally find some peace in the letting go. Some heavy analogies are implied at a few points here – I’m still trying to unravel what “As Mary calls for Magdalene/I turn to yield what I defend” is supposed to mean. Despite not fully understanding the song, I’m in love with how delicately textured it is, with some light samples and electronic touches adding a sense of depth to the otherwise quiet background, and the piano briefly hijacking the song with more of an urgent, melancholy melody midway through, bringing it to a strong climax while also giving it some space to return to its original reflective mood and end on a peaceful note.
“Raise your arms and hold balconies of grace.” That single line speaks volumes in this beautifully crafted, mellow synthpop tune, hinting at forgiveness and possibly even reconciliation to cover the damage done in the relationship that left this man so wounded. Perhaps it’s just the smooth pacing of the song and the angelic, decidedly non-abrasive tone of the electronic instrumentation, but I really feel like this one tries to take a bird’s eye view of the situation, and it’s a refreshing change after some of the harsh, but honest man’s-eye-view assessments of it we’ve heard earlier in the record. It’s another case where the instrumentation is vintage Paper Route, but the execution is dramatically different, in a way that really makes me pause and appreciate the beauty of the song exactly because it’s not the mood I’d normally expect from one of their songs.
15. Love Is Red (With Every Shade of Blue)
One final interlude shows up as the album draws to a close. This time around it’s not a direct reprise of, or introduction to, any specific song, at least from the perspective of obviously borrowing its melody from somewhere else, but the phrase “The writing’s on the wall” echoes quite a bit as it fades in, and they revisit the overall theme of love being different colors at different times (red and blue in this case, and white’s been mentioned earlier… strangely none of this evokes patriotism in any way!) The harp is used prominently here, meshing together with the keyboards to create a rich sonic backdrop that I really wish they’d expanded into a full song, because it’s downright gorgeous. The song ends on a cliffhanger as JT exorcises the last remnants of his bitterness: “You played me for a fool.” That abrupt little cliffhanger takes us into the grand finale.
Remember “Dance on Our Graves”? If you’re a Paper Route fan, of course you do, because the stunning closer on Absence couldn’t help but leave an impression, and it’s also the final song that the band tends to play at most of their concerts. I bring it up because “Vanisher” follows a very similar template, swapping out the stark piano intro for an acoustic guitar-based backdrop, but definitely building up tension in much the same way, especially in how they use a slowed-down, urban-style programmed beat to drop some drama into the chorus. With a lot of the pain finally worked through, but the hope of reconciliation apparently no longer on the table, our protagonist seems to have realized that making a clean break and disappearing from his former lover’s life for good seems to be the best path to healing. The climactic moment comes in the calm bridge, where he hints at leaving a breadcrumb trail for her to follow should she ever decide she wants another shot at friendship: “In a letter years ago/Part of me believed and wrote/The pieces will become a whole/With hope.” It’s devastating, but there’s a part of me that hopes that seed of honesty sown won’t return void. And then there’s a flash of lightning, courtesy of the electric guitar, and the song comes to a climax that seems to deliberately call back to “Dance on Our Graves” more so than any other element of the song, bringing together a euphoric, heavily sampled string section and a bass-heavy programmed beat… and heck, there’s even a bit of harmonica in there so that I can be taken even farther in the Wayback Machine to “American Clouds” from the Are We All Forgotten EP, and get even more nostalgic. It’s almost the kind of song you’d expect a band to put last on their final album to bring things full circle. But I’m guessing Paper Route is a band with a ton of life still left in it. They’ve done a bang-up job for three albums straight now.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Writing on the Wall $1.25
Blue Collar Daydream $.25
Real Emotion $1.25
Mona Lisa $1.50
Second Place $1.25
Laugh About It $1.50
Love Is Red (With Every Shade of Blue) $1.25
JT Daly: Vocals, keyboards, percussion
Chad Howat: Bass, piano, programming
Nick Aranda: Guitar
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: