If Ages and Ages’ debut album Alright You Restless declared independence from the cynicism and self-consciousness plaguing a generation; and the follow-up Divisionary was an exercise in confronting change, conflict, and loss; Something to Ruin addresses the debris of our collective failures and asks whether we might be better off letting go and starting over. Recorded at Isaac Brock’s studio (Ice Cream Party), this album still has plenty of the infectious and joyful melodies the band is known for, without shying away from some serious subject matter.
Early on in the writing process of this record, band leaders Tim Perry and Rob Oberdorfer traveled to Central America, visiting indigenous ruins, partly engulfed by the surrounding forests – a tangible reminder of the impermanence of human civilization and the resilience of nature. In the meantime, their hometown of Portland, Oregon was being engulfed by something entirely different. Like so many other cities around the country, rapid growth and development were changing both landscape and culture.
In part, Something to Ruin is an exploration of what it’s like to watch your surroundings implode in a frenzy of real estate development and lifestyle branding. Songs like “Kick Me Out” and “My Cold Reflection” describe an existence where almost everything is monetized and loses it’s meaning. The album’s first track “They Want More,” deals with the struggle to live an honest life in this type of superficial cultural landscape.
To set the stage for this narrative, Tim and Rob embraced synthetic sounds and artificial textures– a marked difference from the organic and documentarian approach on their previous albums. The record is also more groove-laden, with electronic experimentation pushed to the surface. Tim’s vocal melodies and the richly layered harmonies of Sarah Riddle, Annie Bethancourt, Colin Jenkins and Oberdorfer mirror themes about the power (and impotence) of the individual and the need for community.
Isaac Brock’s unmistakable, marbled baritone and guitar jumps out on “So Hazy” and traces of old Modest Mouse can also be heard in the discordant and mechanical noises that bubble to the surface on the album’s title track and “All of My Enemies.” If there is an anthem on Something to Ruin comparable to “No Nostalgia” and “Divisionary (Do the Right Thing),” it resides in the album’s final track “As It Is” which contains the trademark exultant vocals that endear the band to its fans.
What’s curious is how Ages and Ages is able to address these themes of isolation, obscurity, and rejection of the well-paved path with a sort of infectious hope and earnestness that brings even the most cynical listener into the fold. Maybe this is why President Obama felt compelled to add their song to his personal reelection campaign playlist, or why a high school choir in Burkina Faso posted a video of them singing an Ages song, or why NPR claims their music “could actually change your life.”