The World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid To Die
by Chad Jewett
Harmlessness, the new album from post-emo collective The World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid To Die, begins humbly – just a single, wispy guitar and the voice of founder Derrick Shanholtzer-Dvorak — before blossoming into the band’s recognizable, outsized orchestral post-rock. As an opener, the song is a lovely first gesture, a scaled version of the more self-consciously grandiose songs to come. But “You Can’t Live There Forever” also operates as a pocket history of The World Is A Beautiful Place itself: a warm, bedroom-pop lullaby (Shanholtzer-Dvorak finds real pathos in that breathy, conversational tenor, and you find yourself wishing the band found more room for it) that slowly snowballs into a symphony. It’s the kind of arc you can trace in the band’s discography, from the do-it-yourself charm of Formlessness (whose title is echoed here, five years later), to the deft indie-pop of the band’s split with Deer Leap, through the brimming density of Whenever, If Ever and the astral adventurousness of Between Bodies. It’s tempting to read Harmlessness as an arrival – the band’s Epitaph Records debut, our first extended glimpse of singer David F. Bello’s place in the group’s solar system, a lineup less in flux than the one that yielded Whenever – and you can hear all of it in the intimate shimmer of “You Can’t Live There”.
Yet if Harmlessness — with its very real achievements as an expertly-produced sonic experience and as the most focused statement of The World Is A Beautiful Place’s short career — operates as an arrival, it also sounds a lot like a departure. Indeed, “You Can’t Live There Forever” might as well be a triptych of the band’s migration from their first home in Eastern Connecticut into a bigger, less familiar place. Before, the collective absolutely excelled at evoking the mix of worn-in charm and depressed ennui that defines life in post-industrial New England towns like the band’s Willimantic. Formlessness and Whenever, If Ever all seemed to take place on the same set of lawns, in the same ad-hoc show spaces, under the same hardy shade trees. Harmlessness, instead, has its eyes on a larger world.
“January 10th, 2014”, for instance, crosshatches a true story of violence against women in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico and the response of a vigilante calling herself “Diana,” with Greco-Roman archetype, swapping out the band’s more typical suburban-American mythos for something classical, and balancing its poetic images with a visceral contemplation of real-life horrors. Singers David Bello and Katie Dvorak render the song as a slow-building drama, delivering their lines in dialogue (“Are you afraid of me now?” / “Well yeah. Shouldn’t I be?”), the band adapting the more literal storytelling of Between Bodies into call and response melodies that unfold at a captivatingly deliberate pace. Dvorak shines here (indeed, her voice continually gives these songs a certain brightness), lending a thoughtful reading to the song’s sophisticated interlocking narrative.
As with so much of Harmlessness, “January 10th” finds the group challenging themselves, and the album is defined by both its curiosity and its confidence in these moments. It’s also notable for how refined a grasp the group has come to have on their own tangled aesthetic. Harmlessness has a sense of space that was missing on the occasionally cluttered Whenever, If Ever, and for the first time you can really hear the way the group’s multiple guitars interact and spin around one another, the effervescent counterpoint of Katie Dvorak’s synthesizer, the sheer propulsive punch of Steven Buttery‘s drumming, which consistently adds force and direction to songs that might otherwise wilt under their own stateliness. Take the shimmering, cinematic “Ra Patera Dance”, which continuously pivots between moments of incredibly fine, quiet detail (a quick, rolling bass figure from Josh Cyr for instance) and big crescendos, guided both by Buttery’s instinct for mood and producer (and guitarist) Chris Teti’s carefully staged soundscapes. For an album this full – of melodies, ideas, parts, instruments, counterpoints, time signatures – it’s enough just to stand back and appreciate the fact that not one beat feels out of place or off its mark. For a band that has done such a stirring job finding the beauty in human imperfection, it’s fascinating to see the ways in which everything on Harmlessness is aligned and apportioned just so.
Harmlessness also finds The World Is A Beautiful Place more willing than ever to invest in the stuff that lies at the outer reaches of their genre. Some version of Modest Mouse’s star-gazing idiosyncrasy has always been in the margins of the group’s approach, but it’s still interesting to see a song like “Wendover” adopting and adapting the hazy, tuneful bounce of Good News For People Who Love Bad News, right down to the chipper, whistling synthesizer. It’s equally fascinating to hear the band quietly rehabbing some of the more brazenly anodyne sounds of early-2000s pop-punk and emo, as on album-highlight “I Can Be Afraid Of Everything”, which for all its expanse and careful craft, shares at least some of circa-2003 Blink-182’s ultra-produced power-pop or even the fine-tuned emo of Taking Back Sunday’s Where You Want To Be. Many of the album’s best moments actually arrive whenever The World Is embraces some of that energy and momentum, as on the fleet, buoyant “The Word Lisa”, which at two minutes, is amongst the album’s shortest passages, but also one of its most memorable, as David Bello wraps one of his best melodies around the song’s looping synthesizer. The group will likely always be better at emphasizing the sweetness of major keys then trying to find purchase in gloomier minors, as on the slightly shapeless “We Need More Skulls”.
And ultimately, it’s Bello’s contribution to the album, and to the way we now understand The World Is A Beautiful Place, that remains most marked. The singer-songwriter has an easy, vivid grasp on how to craft melodies that make sense in the band’s jam-packed arrangements, making his voice as much a rhythm instrument (he and Cyr seem to have a similar sense of their pocket) as a lead, further underlining the communalism of the group, who continue to refuse all the old hierarchies. But Bello also knows when to claim his space, as with his outstanding work on “The Word Lisa”, or the simple but canny way his melodies match the guitars in “Rage Against the Dying of the Light” or “Haircuts for Everybody”. Bello also seems to understand the poignant ethos that runs just beneath the surface of the band’s catalogue – a certain warmth for outsiders, for people who struggle, for folks that struggle with questions and doubts. When, on the evocative alt-country rumination “Mental Health”, Bello sings “You are normal and healthy to forgive yourself” you’re struck with the deceiving simplicity of the line, an affirmation to match a past line, echoed earlier on the album, “Break the mirror, we get younger, life will always be weird”. As much as Bello seems more taken with lyrics-as-stories, or as stream-of-consciousness collections of detailed still-life (another way in which he is a match for the band he now fronts), he also proves consistently thoughtful in grasping a certain kind of emotional language. The album is called Harmlessness, and as a frame to put around The World Is A Beautiful Place’s stalwart empathy – their ability to capture a certain ineffable feeling of both isolation and belonging, strength and vulnerability, archetype and photorealism — it’s nothing short of definitive.