In the wake of tragedy, people heal in different ways. Some turn to food, work, or exercise. I turn to music. When my good friend, Collin, passed away last May I found myself desperately in need of something new to listen to. I spent a month playing familiar songs on indefinite repeat, but I still felt like I was drifting in a boat that was blown off course. It wasn’t until I started listening to Portugal. The Man’s new album, Evil Friends, that I started the healing process.
“Plastic Soldiers“ introduces the album through a slow mix of horns and acoustic guitar. When I listen to it, I feel like I’m floating on an ocean of sound. The vocals come in on a breeze whispering “Everything carries weight; everything is the same; within us, all together.” In just a minute of minimalism, the intro to the song had already captured my sense of sadness, while providing me with the hope that I wasn’t alone. The song then picks up slightly and gets more specific and personal, but keeps the general feelings that started it.
I know what you’re thinking. Being in the situation I’m in, I’m obviously biased. To that all I have to say is: you’re right. Music is important to so many people because of the emotions it evokes and reminds us of.
Now, one good song doesn’t make a good album. And ten or more good songs don’t make a great album. The reason I like Evil Friends so much, is because the songs relate to each other through common themes.
For example the second song, “Creep In a T-Shirt”, starts off with a piano riff that builds off the piano part at the end of “Plastic Soldiers”. The title track, “Evil Friends” shares lyrics with the song before it. So the first three songs on the album almost seem like one continuous song.
“Modern Jesus” is one of the catchiest songs on the album. Its anthemic lyrics and melody paired with pop sensibility make it a song that I want to get drunk with my friends and sing along to.
“Hip Hop Kids” and “Atomic Man” keep the album rolling right along as the need for acceptance is examined, but ultimately discarded because the individual is made out of the same atoms as everything else. We don’t need to ‘fit in’ because we are already part of the world around us. We’re atomic men; we’re all a “moon that pulls the tide that takes the sand.”
“Sea of Air” strips us back down to an acoustic guitar in order to talk about death and existence. Partway through the song comes the most shocking sonic experience of the entire album and, I have to be honest, at first it really bothered me. It made me uncomfortable and I disregarded the moment as a mistake. But the more I listen to it, the more I understand that moment. Whether or not it was done to that degree on purpose, it very effectively delivers that feeling of panic when one faces the idea of their inevitable mortality.
“Waves”, is a cynical anti-war song. It argues that we conveniently forget about the people that suffer unnecessarily because we are so focused on ourselves. “Holy Roller” brings the album back up from the depths of depression, but cautions us to not take its words as gospel.
“Someday Believers” tells us that we all have our problems, so there’s no use dwelling on the things you’ve done wrong. My favorite lyric from the album is “everybody knows that no one really knows at all” because it helps remind me that it’s o.k. to not understand everything about the world.
The black sheep of the album is also the song you might have heard played on the radio. “Purple Yellow Red and Blue” sounds like they are emulating MGMT. It’s dancy and electronic, so it makes sense that it would be released in today’s Electronic Pop-leaning market. And just because I think it sounds the least like the rest of the album doesn’t mean I don’t like it. It simply means that it is the first song that I would cut if one had to be discarded.
“Smile” is the last song on the album. It starts off weary, wanting to avoid the ache of the world, but the end of the song brings us back to where we started. Again we hear the sound of horns and are reminded that we can’t forget the way things have turned out. Memory is existence and “we all live and die [like] plastic soldiers slowly growing older.”
This is one of the most beautifully produced and emotionally moving albums that I have ever heard.