In the movie Bull Durham, rookie minor league pitcher Ebby Calvin LaLoush is chosen to be the pet project of local English teacher/amateur baseball psychologist Annie Savoy. She will teach him how to improve his game mentally and physically. Oh, and they will also have a lot of kinky sex (which we never actually see). In their first bedroom scene, the perpetually horny LaLoush is tied to a bed in his boxer shorts, eagerly awaiting some of that Annie Savoy tail. She enters the room fully clothed, puts on a record of some strange foreign music, and proceeds to read him poetry until dawn. “It’s a lot more tiring than fucking,” he later states to his catcher/mentor Crash Davis.
What is the point, I hear you all asking yourselves? This scene ran repeatedly through my mind while listening to A Sense of Purpose, the latest release from In Flames. Just as LaLoush was eager to get laid, I was excited to hear new material from one of my favorite bands, hoping it would be as enjoyable as I remember the band to be. What actually happened, though, was a lot more disappointing, and the listening experience made me more tired than rocking out.
Let me move away from metaphor into context here. My feelings on In Flames are well documented (and if you need a refresher, go back and read my reviews for Soundtrack to Your Escape and Come Clarity on this site). I have stood by them even as numerous fans have fallen to the wayside in recent years. I have defended them through some questionable musical shifts. I am not someone who is just bitter, waiting for the next Whoracle or The Jester Race, but even I have to draw the line somewhere, and A Sense of Purpose is that line.
“We’re not even trying!” vocalist Anders Friden sings in the album opener and lead single “The Mirror’s Truth.” Well, actually, a quick check of the CD booklet reveals the line to be “Without even trying,” but the key message remains. Although this is likely the type of self-effacing lyrics that bands often direct towards their detractors, it rings uncomfortably true here. It’s almost like they aren’t trying anymore, or at least, not trying to satisfy their core fanbase. But wait! Here comes “Disconnected,” sounding a lot like a Come Clarity outtake – until the chorus, anyway.
That last remark sums up the majority of this album. You’ll hear “Disconnected” and think that things are on their way up, but then a track like “I’m the Highway” comes along and dashes your hopes. In between, you get mediocre stuff like “Alias” and “Delight and Angers.” Often times, this all happens within the same track, and I for one am having too much cognitive dissonance to enjoy the damn album.
I’m sure glad I got to hear “Move Through Me” at this point. The first truly great track here is followed by the single worst track here, and possibly of their entire career, in “The Chosen Pessimist,”– and at just over eight minutes, it’s like they’re just rubbing it in my face. It’s a quiet, softly-played ditty that gains a bit of strength in the latter half but is still incredibly agonizing to sit through. What do they do for a follow-up? Turn right around, crank it up, and deliver one of the standout tracks in “Sober and Irrelevant” – yet another potentially, painfully true assertion.
Perhaps the ultimate frustration is that the album is pretty damn good from this point on – “Condemned,” “Drenched in Fear,” and “March to the Shore” all sound like the kind of stuff we’ve come to expect and enjoy from In Flames (and if you’re fortunate enough to pick up the Japanese version, there’s three bonus tracks after that of equal or greater quality.) If the whole album sounded like these last four tracks, I’d be telling a whole different story.
I’m also having problems accepting the abundance of keyboards on the album. They’ve always kept them in check before, but now they’re using them a lot more liberally. Sometimes it’s a good thing, adding a little extra something (“Alias,” “Move Through Me”); sometimes it’s just more dead weight (“The Mirror’s Truth,” “The Chosen Pessimist.”) I guess I’ll let it slide for now, but if I hear a piano ballad on the next album, I’m getting the Dismember guys to pay a visit to IF Studios.
I am an In Flames fan, and as an In Flames fan that has been steadfast in his support of the band, I can honestly tell you that A Sense of Purpose is a huge disappointment, marred by the peaks-and-valleys of quality and an overall sense of mediocrity. It isn’t so much that it’s bad, in spite of some truly bad moments; it’s the fact that they have some really good moments that show they could have made a great album (or at least, a better one) and they’ve just opted not to. I’m all for growth and evolution, but only when it’s for the better. Sadly, A Sense of Purpose is a step in the wrong direction.