ALBUM REVIEW: We Were Promised Jetpacks sound refined on new record

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In some respects, it’s remarkable We Were Promised Jetpacks are still a band. Formed in high school in Edinburgh, Scotland in 2003, the original lineup has stayed together through not only the emotional and existential tumult of their teenage years and twenties, but also the music business meat grinder – somehow managing to secure growing acclaim along the way.

Like former labelmates and fellow Glaswegians Frightened Rabbit and The Twilight Sad, they have continued to deliver earnest, literate, anthemic indie rock with minimal interruption, much to the delight of their fans.

But it’s inevitable that times change and life happens. After wrapping touring on 2014’s Unravelling, the band made some moves behind-the-scenes. They said goodbye to multi-instrumentalist Stuart McGachan, who played with the band from 2013 to 2015. Some band members got married. Scott Hutchinson, singer and songwriter for Frightened Rabbit, the band that passed along their demo to their original label reps at Fat Cat, committed suicide earlier this year. On the cusp of their thirties, it made sense to take stock of who they were outside of music, then regroup to write – with that in mind, they promised to stay off the road until their fourth album was finished.

After stops and starts, that album is here. The More I Sleep The Less I Dream (out September 14, self-released) is a refined, mature take on the band’s trademark mix of post-punk and indie pop, befitting a group whose four members recently did hit the 30 mark. It is equal parts self-assured and natural, an organic outgrowth from a ultimately-scrapped first batch of songs “written for the wrong reason,” said guitarist Michael Palmer.

The band regrouped and found confidence through instinct, returning to what any band of 15-plus years knows well – honing material in a rehearsal space. The songs have the easy flow and near-telepathic connection of seasoned musicians playing in a room for hours, while maintaining the underlying intensity that has always characterized their work.

The band’s post-punk roots are on display throughout, with a strong sense of pre-Joshua Tree U2 and Turn on the Bright Lights-era Interpol in both the album’s spacious sound and melodic directness – Bono or Paul Banks with a Scottish burr. Producer Jonathan Low (who has worked with The National, Sufjan Stevens, Kurt Vile, The War on Drugs, and more) was clear that any studio augmentation would only be allowed if it served the song skeletons put in place in the practice space. That lack of ornamentation pays dividends, giving the band a beautifully recorded, big sound without distracting from the urgency of the material.

And the songs are urgent indeed – the themes of miscommunication and self-doubt running through the album do not extend to the music. This is a guitar-focused album, and the riffs dictate the mood – sometimes chiming, sometimes raging, occasionally soft-focused, maybe alien (there’s a heavy dose of the Whammy octave pedal on this album…you know it from “Seven Nation Army”, “My Iron Lung”, or Tom Morello’s work in Rage Against the Machine), but always with some degree of propulsion.

The More I Sleep The Less I Dream is constantly moving forward, even in its quietest moments. Bassist Sean Smith and drummer Darren Lackie provide an airtight rhythmic underpinning as Palmer and vocalist/guitarist Adam Thompson storm or seethe. Thompson is in great form vocally and lyrically – his voice is not acrobatic, but it is pliable in its own way, giving the songs the right amount of whatever they call for.

Opening track “Impossible” is cut from the classic album-opener cloth – steadily building in intensity with big brushstrokes of sound – but it never quite releases its tension. “In Light” and “Someone Else’s Problem” take that energy and run with it, with the latter exploring the dancier side of post-punk. “Make It Easier” thrashes, then soothes; it’s up to first single “Hanging In” to truly blow things open, with Thompson lamenting, “You’re walking, you’re talking / you’re pushing me under the bus”.

The second half of the album is moodier and riff-heavy. “Improbable” introduces a dreamy feel that nods to Slowdive’s excellent self-titled record; “When I Know More” keeps that atmosphere and takes it widescreen, with one of the album’s biggest choruses. “Not Wanted” is a distillation of everything happening throughout; dynamic, with big, slashing, The Edge-like guitars and more clever lead guitar work. “Repeating Patterns” is the heaviest tune here; a driving, high-energy riff fest with Thompson employing both a desperate falsetto and a half-shout, half-moan, to great effect.

All of which sets up the menacing, self-titled closer. “The More I Sleep, The Less I Dream” feels like the natural culmination of everything before it – probably because it crystallized the approach to writing the album. It’s a slow burn of a tune, the equivalent of tiptoeing over creaking floorboards but marked with simmering intensity. “Oh my word / I’m nothing but a curse” sings Thompson, with palpable self-loathing. There are hints of early-2000s emo’s mathy riffage, the fog-saturated atmosphere of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s first album, and a Radiohead-meets-U2 feeling of expanse. With its sense of tension and slight flair for the dramatic, it could almost be the theme song for the next James Bond movie.

It adds up to a mature, direct, fully-realized statement – the sound of a band moving forward into their next chapter. The More I Sleep The Less I Dream is a welcome addition to We Were Promised Jetpacks’ catalog, well worth a listen for indie and alt rock fans familiar and not.