When Rick Ross’s “100 Black Coffins” came flooding through movie theater sound systems during screenings of Django Unchained, drowning us in bravado and grunted foreshadowing, there’s a reason we didn’t laugh. Ross, an ex-correctional officer who reinvented himself as a rapper under an alias lifted from a real life drug trafficker, is able to sell us on a song like the bloody “Coffins” because his character was built to devour any doubt. This is why we rarely call bullshit on his fabrication of reality, and it’s the same reasons we watch action movies: we enjoy all this talk of violence and drug slinging as long as it’s in some alternate reality. When we hear the stomping, outsized western beat on “100 Black Coffins”, we’re reminded of exciting storytelling rather than CNN Headlines. It’s all about playing a good character.
Alex Ebert is playing a similar type of role. Once the frontman of the strung out electrodes in Ima Robot, Ebert found rebirth while in rehab as the character Edward Sharpe. The band he formed around this new creation sold a fan base on the mystery, releasing their debut Up From Below with a cover photo of the group literally jumping into the setting sun. There was a feeling surrounding the album, at least among Ebert fans, that this album could save your soul. Well, not quite, but something like that.
Up From Below ended up being a terrifically self-aware album, with songs like “40 Day Dream” poking fun at the grandeur expected of musical spectacle, even explicitly referencing The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour. When you listened to Up From Below, you knew everyone involved was in on the joke, that they knew music alone couldn’t save your soul, but you also knew these dudes believed in the power of their own musical community. Up From Below was essentially just an extremely clever way of nailing down a cliché.
On their third album, however, Alex Ebert has lost himself completely in character, and the result is a festival pandering slog through mostly uninspired sing-alongs. The trouble starts right away with Ebert (as Edward Sharpe, it should be noted) singing “We don’t have to talk/Let’s dance”. He sounds like he’s straining here, and not in the way Dylan used to. This is closer to Sam Waterson on The Newsroom.
The record’s biggest offense is the painfully generic “Let’s Get High”, which seems confused by its own lyrics, especially on awkward lines like “Ain’t we all just Japanese when we’re high/On love?”. This is the type of writing festival organizers salivate over but fans should ignore. It’s just streamlining the process and is also what ends up making the self-titled effort nearly insufferable. In the end, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes is like listening to Rick Ross giving a lecture; it may have been put together with good intentions but makes little sense. It doesn’t give us anything we can’t already get elsewhere. Why play a character if you’re not going to make something worth watching?