When former Ima Robot frontman Alex Ebert debuted his pseudo-folk-cult Edward Sharpe And The Magnetic Zeros with Up From Below in 2009, critics could temporarily set aside their aversion to the band’s aesthetic and concept—which was lifted from former Tripping Daisy frontman Tim DeLaughter’s pseudo-folk-cult The Polyphonic Spree anyway—to acknowledge (if begrudgingly) the attractively warm qualities of the album and infectious single “Home.” As the group pressed on, however, that tolerance rapidly faded, and open-minded consideration was in short supply for the majestically subdued Here in 2012 and the fuzzed-out groove of 2013’s self-titled effort. Without much more to lose, they approached the new PersonA open to taking some big risks, and, for those that can clear their head of preconceptions, it largely delivers.
Starting from a foundation of psychedelic folk-pop that’s been the band’s bread-and-butter to date, PersonA quickly veers off into unconventional, exploratory directions. Recorded at the former Piety Street Studios in New Orleans—which Ebert had recently purchased—many songs soak up that venue’s surroundings, and slinky opener “Hot Coals” doesn’t waste much time before wandering into a jazzy haze where the 10 members seemingly half-improvise their performances in a trance. As the track passes the seven-minute mark, it’s breezed through a softly building guitar intro, rumbled along a quiet river of piano and brisk percussion, and settled into a shimmering sunset of trumpets and organ. The six-plus minutes of “Wake Up The Sun” take similar tacks and jives, stretching out from a meandering piano motif into a sunny refrain before devolving into a whirl of instruments and dramatic chanting.
These long-form, multi-part, abruptly shifting compositions—eight of which were, for the first time, written cooperatively by the group in free-form studio sessions—are impressively organic and loose, giving each of the assorted contributions its own space but maintaining overall coherence. And though PersonA has a lot less of the sing-along material that previously earned the band royalties for car and NFL commercials, it doesn’t totally abandon its signature sound; with cheerful and uplifting folk ditties such as “No Love Like Yours” and the thump-clap rhythms underscoring “Free Stuff” and others, there are plenty of flower-child tones and airy, soaring choruses to keep current fans interested. Meanwhile, quiet ballads “Perfect Time” and “Lullaby” showcase a piano-prominent approach to the meditative reflections that defined Here.
Generally, however, PersonA is a deviation for the group, and there are a few ways to process it. Skeptics who have already written the band off may dismiss the new methods as artificial, which isn’t that hard to do, given how much of the group’s history feels contrived. But, to an impartial ear, the record doesn’t sound like a collective of falsely enthusiastic neo-hippies; rather, it sounds like a collective of talented, unhampered musicians, and it deserves recognition as such.