The spectre of death thoroughly haunts Motion City Soundtrack’s new album Go. From the introductory “Circuits And Wires,” where vocalist Justin Pierre imagines himself as a short-circuiting machine slowly acceding to its impending breakdown, to the penultimate “Happy Anniversary,” which takes on the same topic from a similar angle but through the gaze of what is quite clearly flesh and bone, and with human dread and the sadness of incapacity supplanting the clear-eyed robotic rationality of “Circuits,” the reaper seems to lurk around each coming corner. “Everyone Will Die” plays like a sweet-sad cousin of The Flaming Lips’ “Do You Realize,” asking “Who you gonna love in the meantime, before it catches you?” Even the album’s brighter moments smack less of joy than of happy resignation, the sort of pleasant calm that comes over someone who’s just mentally committed themselves to ending it all. The darkness makes for an emotionally challenging (though tremendously rewarding) listen.
But if Go repeatedly addresses mortality in the specific, it’s more broadly an album about giving in to the inevitable. In “Circuits and Wires” Pierre sings of being “Organically designed to last a finite length of time,” a begrudging acknowledgement, if not a willing acceptance, of his own planned obsolescence. “Timelines” finds Pierre reflecting on his past, resolving that ultimately “It’s not a matter of time // It’s just a matter of timing.” It ranks among the band’s best tracks, Pierre rolling off a terribly clever list of life lessons while musing “Do you ever wonder how you got to here?” Elsewhere, the narrator of “Son Of A Gun” presents himself as both an unwavering lover and an incorrigible boor, proffering both unchangeable natures in a package deal to a partner.
Recorded independently (though released on Epitaph), Go finds Motion City Soundtrack shying away from more obvious punk or pop-rock producers in favor of quirky fellow Minnesotan Ed Ackerson. The collaboration seems to have been a seamless fit; Go is the band’s most consistent-sounding collection to date. Beyond the surging rush of “Circuits And Wires” that opens the album, the tone of Go is almost universally mellow, to a degree the band hasn’t evinced before. From the breezy Cali bounce of “Son Of A Gun” to the rolling snare and cinematic strings of “Everyone Will Die,” there’s a gently radiant warmth that works its way through the full collection of songs.
In large part, that seems to be due to keyboardist Jesse Johnson—he’s vastly more present here than on 2010’s My Dinosaur Life, which often found his synths subsumed by churning guitars. Johnson paints bright squiggles across the bouncy acoustic pop of “True Romance,” and his quavering Moog echoes and amplifies Pierre’s cooing falsetto in “The Coma Kid”’s intro; its balmy squelch warms “Floating Down The River” from the inside. The frequent decision by guitarist Joshua Cain to opt for acoustic six strings over electric only amplifies the album’s spacious, uncluttered feel. Despite its thematic density, Go sometimes feels so airy that it might float away, individual tracks like helium balloons held together by gossamer production. It’s a gorgeous new aesthetic for a band that clearly remains capable of reinvention, even five albums in.
Indeed, while Motion City Soundtrack may be at a career crossroads from a business standpoint, as an artistic concern they’re somehow just now peaking. Go is a triumph in every way imaginable, from its tight thematic coherence and smart exploration of an emotionally complex topic to its whip-smart arrangements and hook-filled songwriting. Go hones in on the line between reflection and resignation and gleefully dances atop it, sentimental but never sappy, dark but never dour. In doing so, it might just be the best album Motion City Soundtrack have crafted to date, and it’s only their own past greatness that keeps that call from being decisive. If you’re the sort who prepares a yearly top ten, start your short list here.
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