A few days ago, I was reading along in an online magazine and came across a link to a feature on dictators who had extraordinarily close relationships with their moms. Which is a far more interesting topic than, say, the good ol’ mama’s boys of country music. Here in the West, we’re fascinated by figures who seem to wield virtually unchecked and entirely undemocratic power.
Umbrella Tree has never been the sort of band to tackle pedestrian pop subject matter, and for their fourth proper album, they’ve taken Napoleon Bonaparte as their muse. He was an emperor, rather than a modern dictator, but I think the parallel works nonetheless; we’re still talking about heavy-handed rule taken to the extreme.
In keeping with their artfully oblique approach to songwriting, this is by no means a straightforward retelling of a ruler’s bio. The cover art of To the Memory of a Once Great Man offers a clue about what the band is up to. Front and center is an image of a kid sporting Wayfarers, beneath the iconic silhouette of a Napoleonic bicorne hat twice as wide as his head. The image effectively brings Napoleon down to our level; makes him the boy next door.
Jillian Leigh, Zachary Gresham, Derek Pearson and new fourth member Ryan LaFave poke around in an encyclopedic attic of historical facts, take liberties, reinterpret, playact and raise questions only to let them linger in the air. Did Napoleon’s stature give him an inferiority complex that bred his conqueror’s instincts? Or was his shortness the stuff of myth?
Through keen lyrics that are often hard to make out if you don’t have the transcriptions handy — Leigh’s and Gresham’s vocal styles are all about shape-shifting, distance and mystique — they ponder matters such as his callousness toward his soldiers’ lives, his paranoia and the thing furthest beyond his control: his passion for Josephine.
This is the first album on which Pearson has used drum programming, and boy, does it change the music’s center of gravity. Now the band’s postmodern pop collages have an even broader palette. The sounds are re-contextualized by the beats beneath, twitchy here, Spartan there, elsewhere tailored to the dance floor or even verging on hip-hop. There’s untidiness, spillage and commingling of voices, spiky guitars, keyboards and electronic sounds. Central character aside, there’s nothing remotely regimented or martial about it.
I wouldn’t say the album humanizes Napoleon, but it does make him seem more vulnerable. “He is no island,” sings Leigh. The notions of empire, and of invincible masculinity, are spider-webbed with cracks, and they daylight is showing through. “And this is what happens when you run out of gas,” intones Gresham. “And this is what happens if you fail to react.” That’s not to say that Umbrella Tree are message-driven; what they’re most invested in is making listening into an imaginative act. And their new album feels pretty damn of-the-moment for a song cycle about a guy from a different century.
Umbrella Tree will play an album release show Saturday, May 19, at Exit/In.