The Story Of, The World’s Affair
I reviewed The Story Of’s 2006 EP, foothill highway appalachian road, falling in love with it while travelling in Europe last summer. The album fit perfectly with the wonderful freedom and self-awareness I was enjoying: I was living life, unrestrained by work or the real world, exploring my own giddiness in being alive and unworried. Foothill highway appalachian road was an affirmation of everything that was good and pure in life, a joyous presentation of art and expression from five guys from Austin.
What two years of our current history can do to a band.
It is with great sadness that I must report the joy is gone. Not gone; taken. There is a weariness to The World’s Affair, as if the band aches, not in the heart, but in their bones from dragging the weight of the past half-decade of our country’s history behind them. One can’t help but notice on first listen, even without contemplating the lyrical content, that the band is frustrated, not with the process of making music, but with the posture of the world. The listener feels it so strongly I have rarely ever encountered a more honest translation of emotion onto tape.
That The Story Of is able to do this so effectively suggests a band perfectly in tune with their craft, able to tap this honesty without any worry of the typical barriers to musical creativity. Every song is a self-contained ecosystem, with details and sounds and quirks unique to that world, but connected to the other songs in a loose narrative, not of a story, but of a state of mind, a headache sourced to the current mess we are in, mostly of our making. There is a meanness in songs like “The Privateer” — where the marching beats on the last EP reminded one of rousing drinking songs, they sound here like Gestapo brownshirts or jack-booted thugs. I would never have believed that The Story Of could create such an angry album, and even after repeated listening, I am still shocked at what they’ve managed to record here.
It is almost useless to try to describe the individual songs on The World’s Affair; they are so rich, so complex, and so outside traditional song structure, yet still instantly familiar to fans. “Carry the Horizon” is one of the many standouts, a lazy loop and acoustic guitar intro build to a gorgeous wordless sing-a-long chorus followed by The Story Of’s patented vocal slides and harmony. The quirky programming and keyboard parts on “The World’s Affair” are better integrated, more musically interesting, and add a texture and lushness only hinted at on previous works.
“Wonderlust” is yet another right turn in The Story Of’s sound and writing. A groovy, bass-heavy synth riff propels the song over a gibberish call-and-response chorusy bit that could be a revolution or a rally. Led by a young girls voice. Really. “Pinwheel” is maybe the most obvious nick that listeners might notice, but it doesn’t matter; it’s the best song on the album, a jaunty, easy-driving rocker that hides the bitter thread that runs throughout. This juxtaposition of poppy, hoppy music driving a downtrodden message is fascinating. The intro to “Armada” could be a mash-up between Duran Duran and Sigur Ros, growing more powerful before it erupts into a falsetto chorus, followed by one of The Story Of’s quirky route-changes.
Listeners would do well to wear headphones while deciphering the lyrics, especially in the more lush passages (I have purposely refrained from translating much of the content here, as one of the pleasures of this album is exploring the message and meaning within the lyrics). In another nod to the band’s mastery, there is a conscious effort to match the content of the lyrics with the surrounding music. The most obvious messages are stuck right out front, while the more obscure passages lie deep in the mix, surrounded by layers of complex melody.
Some of it does come across a bit ham-handed, like the rickety “Save US,” for the most part an unambiguous and clumsy diatribe against the current government from the point of view of another country. “America, it’s all on you / to bring her back” is an actual lyric, complete with laughing children in the background. Sentimental, yes, but way too obvious for a band of this caliber. Whimsy and obfuscation suit The Story Of much better; vague lyrics coupled with their floating, airy music. There are very few missteps, however, and those that do exist are easily overlooked within the context of the album.
“Recall The Winners” ends the album with the comforting, hypnotic voice of Mr. Rogers testifying before the Senate Subcommittee on Communications in 1969, speaking for the emotional and social needs of children before chairman John O. Pastore. In six minutes, Mr. Rogers renders the gruff Senator to near-tears, an even-keel voice pleading for alternatives to the violence and upheaval children are exposed to every day. Those words from nearly four decades ago are both a metaphor of the mess we are in and a symbol of what we have lost; in releasing The World’s Affair, The Story Of quietly give up on us, with a heart-felt sadness that fades away in a wash of echoes.