By Nick Porcaro
There’s an unavoidable tragedy surrounding the fourth and final School of Seven Bells album, SVIIB: co-founding member Benjamin Curtis died of lymphoblastic lymphoma at the young age of 35, leaving longtime collaborator and former lover Alejandra Deheza to complete the album in his absence. But, in finishing alone what her and Ben started together, Allie and producer Justin Meldal-Johnson leave us with an uplifting ode to a life gone far too soon. Nowhere is this more evident than the spellbinding opener “Ablaze”, a stomping dream pop track about the life-changing powers of love. It’s one of the best songs of 2016, and a perfect way to start the band’s final salvo.
Promotional singles “On My Heart” and “Open Your Eyes” immediately follow, and though they share many musical similarities, differences in subject matter define the two as equally standout tracks. “On My Heart” marches assertively into a back-and-forth “he said she said” battle, while “Open Your Eyes” is a warm gesture of comfort from one broken heart to another. Allie’s vocals enchant as always, and her nimble word-weaving in the verses is an especially inspired touch. The emotions behind lines like “I know your heart is broken and you’ve been weeping, but I’ve been waiting here patiently for too long” are conflicted and nuanced, a reflection of Ben and Allie’s complex relationship.
Elsewhere, School of Seven Bells forgo reinventing the wheel in favor of building on earlier work: “A Thousand Times More” shimmers and shakes in the same way as the ’80s pop revivalism of Disconnect from Desire, and “Signals” resurrects the sort of eclectic vocal tics found on Alpinisms before diving into a huge chorus that would fit right at home on Ghostory. The lone betrayal of SVIIB‘s real-life backstory is “Confusion”, which is also the only song the group penned in the wake of Ben’s diagnosis. It’s as devastating a listen as you’d expect.
There are a few missteps, unfortunately, as on any School of Seven Bells album; “Elias” simply drags, no thanks to an oddball beeping sound in the background, while “Music Takes Me” attempts a daring time change and fails to stick the landing before sheepishly returning to how it started. But School of Seven Bells was always a band hellbent on seeing their ideas through, consistency be damned, so it’s hard to fault one or two weak tracks when everything else on SVIIB lives up to the standards of their other three records. And really, what better tribute to Ben’s talent than ending the project as strong as it started?
“This is our time, and our time is indestructible”, Allie coos with quiet confidence on the prom-ready, slow-burning closer “This is Our Time”, and she’s right: life may be finite, but music is forever.
Rating 7 out 10