Everybody Wants To Know
By: Eric Greenwood
I seriously doubt that anyone still cares, but Swell has never been a band that paid much attention to the masses. As underrated and under-appreciated as Swell has been over the past decade, I continue to be amazed every few years or so when some label actually releases another Swell record to an undeserving and indifferent public. Well, Swell is not even really a band anymore, as its revolving cast of characters has pretty much whittled its way down to just singer/songwriter David Freel, whose weary, lovelorn voice toils through yet another batch of bleary-eyed psychedelia.
Freel wears the badge of neglect proudly on Everybody Wants To Know. Almost every song putters along at the same sinister pace but without the immediate tunefulness of previous releases. Freel's still as cynical as ever, but his melodies seem to have blurred. The lo-fi acoustic backdrop you've come to expect joins fuzzed-out guitars, synthesizers and piano, odd syncopation, and even dub low end, but none of it seems to gel properly the first few listens. Freel's dark, obtuse lyrics don't have the same punch without the snappy hooks that infested classic Swell albums like 41 and Too Many Days Without Thinking.
"This Story" kicks off with some ubiquitous post-rock chugging and Freel's instantly recognizable/lazy drawl. One thing about Swell you should know: never listen to it when there's daylight outside. This is music made for the wee hours of the night, hopped up on caffeine, deprived of days of sleep, and on the verge of hallucination. With that in mind a song like "Someday Always Comes" makes much more sense. The repetitive acoustic plucking underpins a distant build-up in tension with distorted guitars, ghostly keyboards and, of course, Freel's lackadaisical whine. Such passive aggressive tension would just dissipate with the heat if listened to in the middle of a hot summer day.
Everybody Wants To Know could have used better editing, as several songs ramble on past the five-minute mark when three and a half minutes would have easily sufficed. Perhaps, the lack of bandmate input left Freel less objective about himself, causing songs like "Velvet Sun" to suffer from bloated indulgence (despite its eerie allure). But then "East N West" comes along and not only paints a randomly sublime word picture ("kinda slowly formed a path for it/stopped to goddamn rest, you were laughing/and only fools would wait but who's asking?/'cause surely he's a train that's worth catching") but also picks up the pace to a moderately rocking sway.
The breezy title track defies the rest of the album's sardonic temperament with a sense of resignation that permeates every one of Freel's words: "time gathers all/gonna stay my way, finally gone…" There's just not enough breadth here to distinguish the tracks from one another. There's no question that songs like "Call Me" and "Try Me" are haunting, compelling, and catchy, but when held up to Swell's own standards they don't move forward. It's fine for Freel to be content in his discontentment, but he could at least try to invent new ways to express it.
Apart from the artier and sleeker production techniques, Swell's sixth album shows no real evolution in terms of songwriting or sound. However, every listen opens up new doors (even if it takes way too long to find them). Is it worth it? Of course, it is still Swell after all. A sideways step from Swell is better than 90% of the trash that will likely cross your path. So, if you've never had the pleasure of a Swell album this is as good a place to start as any.