Silversun Pickups Create Haunting Album in the Wake of Returning to Normalcy with Physical Thrills


4.7 out of 5 stars

Silversun Pickups is one of my favorite bands of all time (in fact, I ranked them #2 recently), and I doubt there will ever be an album of theirs that I don’t like.

The new album from the Los Angeles-based quartet which is their 6th studio album is called Physical Thrills, and it is really good.

Though it may not be what you would expect from the band if you are familiar with them.

I can’t really describe the overall tone in any other words than “haunting, moody, and darker than usual.” Even with their usual darker lyrics, they usually have up-tempo songs that kind of take the edge off them.

This album is a bit less about taking the edge off. The first song, “Stillness (Way Beyond)” is a good example of this. 

Between the ominous synth sound, the ghostly backing vocals, and the overall layered musicality, makes it feel like this album is looking to push away from the poppier sound that some of their songs have had in the past. 

And for good reason. This was mostly written during isolation, and Brian Aubert (vocals, guitar) was enjoying various themes of quarantine such as having less stress and anxiety from the hustle and bustle of everyday life before COVID.

Aubert said there were a lot of old influences that came back and resurfaced for this album such as Portishead and Sparklehorse. And not for nothing, they worked with alt-rock legendary producer (and Garbage drummer) Butch Vig on this album.

Sticks and Stones” is one of those songs where you can hear influences and understand the concepts of isolation. I think it may be one of the best songs on the album. I am still not sure which is my favorite, and I have listened to the album about 5 or 6 times now. 

Aubert says the song was written during time when he was alone in quarantine and that the song is about just enjoying time alone. As he said, “That’s what that song is about to me. We’re fine, go on about your business. Don’t take me. I won’t go.”

To me it does seem to address mortality and not wanting to die as well, and how life can beat you down. Lyrically, that seems pretty straightforward.

Hereafter” definitely feels like a quarantine song in every way. Even the lines “Will we ever be alone again hereafter? Will we ever find a home again way after hereafter?” speaks to Aubert’s desire to keep the quaintness and personal connectivity of quarantine alive after the world goes back to its normal self.

Now, this album does have a few “filler songs” - if you want to call them that - all with the “Dream at Tempo” moniker. Each one having different tempos.

This concept was originally formulated by the band’s song “Dream at Tempo 119” on their album Carnavas, but these songs don’t really have much to do with that particular song in any way that I can tell. It just appears to be a naming convention that fits the concept of these songs on this album.

Another naming convention on this album is the secondary titles for a few songs like “Way Beyond,” “Way After,” and “Way Down.” 

All these naming conventions just seem to help connect sides of a record together and keep a few constant themes sticking throughout. I can’t clearly state (without expressed confirmation from the band) if the songs are connected to the same exact subject matter or not. 

To me, it seems like the songs that have those connected names are playing off of social anxieties and frustrations with how to deal with shared trauma.

And just like that, “Scared Together” shows up to pretty much hammer that nail home. The talk box really takes over on this song, and if you like that effect, you will love the song. It may be a bit in your face at first, but I think it works pretty well. Something you don’t hear very often these days.

You will really start to feel the isolation effect in “Alone on a Hill.” The music video also really supports that concept. 

I will say that when bassist Nikki Monninger sings on ANY SSPU song, it really makes it so much more eerie. Her voice reminds me of Kim Deal from Pixies and The Breeders. The kind of vocals that you can feel in your bones. So good.

Fortunately for this band, Aubert is not like Black Francis who basically never let Deal explore her songs / sound within Pixies’s albums or live shows. That’s a story for another time though, I suppose.

I really like when Silversun Pickups fire up and playing some really rad riffy tunes, and “Hidden Moon” is one of those songs. It is so riff heavy that you almost don’t need lyrics or vocals, but of course, Aubert’s voice is one of the most perfect instruments for audibly complimenting whatever sounds are coming from the instruments.

His voice and melodic tones have been the driving force behind the band’s appeal to me for years. So much so, that I don’t even know what a LOT of their songs are actually about (lyrically), and I don’t care to overanalyze the lyrics, because the songs are just too damn good.

I will not go into depth on EVERY song on this album, just because it spoils the music to always do that, in my opinion.

I will say that songs like “System Error” and “Empty Nest” are not to be missed. Those are some excellent songs.

I mean I don’t think there is anything close to a bad song on this album. The only reason I gave it a 4.7 out of 5 stars is because it always takes me like 20 listens to really appreciate a Silversun Pickups album. That’s not a slight on the band. That’s just me trying to “figure out” the themes, hearing the things that are there and NOT there, and just letting it all sink in. 

I believe that just like every other album that they have released, this will be one of my favorite albums of the year. Still not one bad studio album from this band.

Also, I would be a real piece of crap if I didn’t mention that both drummer Christopher Guanlao and keyboardist Joe Lester are both PHENOMENAL in their roles on this album. I should have and could have said that earlier, but honestly, they are so good it is almost an afterthought because I KNOW that they will be their amazing selves on every song.

Go check this album out. If you have somehow NOT heard of Silversun Pickups by now, then this album may seem a bit wacky to you, but I assure you it has been a process of culminating art that can’t be taken out of that context and effectively examined.

This is one band where the WHOLE catalog truly has to be understood to fully appreciate the details of each song.

That said, ANYONE can enjoy the music without context. You just may not really quite get what the behind-the-music moments have added to the music.

Most bands pretty much suck at 20 years in and by their 6th studio album. That is not the case with Silversun Pickups. They are still as innovative and creative as ever.

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