The Meaning of 8
loud Cult has released six very long albums in seven years and The Meaning of 8 is hardly an exception. Its 19 tracks clock in at over an hour with all manner of instrumentation, setting itself up as a follower in the lineage of recent indie's great sprawls (see: Illinois, Blueberry Boat, You Forgot It In People). A good deal of the album deals directly with the death of lead singer/songwriter Craig Minowa’s 2-year old daughter, so you have Funeral's balance of bottoming out and shooting for the moon. Plus, there's the group’s eco-friendly lifestyle that you could talk about for ages before actually discussing the album, and the band’s name has the word "cult" in it, so we're also in Danielson territory.
Problem is, the leaked-for-months Meaning of 8 doesn't collapse under the weight of its tremendous blog hype so much as it collapses under the weight of itself. In fact, it reminds mostly of Eels' similarly good-not-great Blinking Lights and Other Revelations. There's a certain appeal in imagining one man holing up in the lab and attacking his demons from every conceivable angle, but too much on Meaning of 8 is cut from the same cloth; it's a slightly twee pop album bloated to an unsustainable size.
It's even more frustrating when you consider that the first half of the album could make it on its own. "Chain Reaction" opens with the record’s most intriguing arrangement: skittering drums and synthed-out orchestras give way to a gorgeous, free-time backing for Minowa's mantra-like call to "put your face on mine." It sets off the dominoes that lead to a pretty outstanding run of songs; "Please Remain Calm" simultaneously rocks harder and swings easier than anything else on the album, while "Chemicals Collide" and "Take Your Medicine" further flesh out the album's themes (dependency, death, cosmic movement) with a tone that recalls a sweeter, more bemused Of Montreal.
And yet, somewhere in all of this, the hit factory exposes its assembly line. While there's the rogue instrumental thrown in occasionally, Meaning of 8 tries to play off a walking tour through Kansas as a "journey." A record this long needs tension and release, not just one three-and-a-half minute studio-pop song after another. Minowa's voice and lyrical style will be a big sticking point, as it can cause sugar shock to even the most twee-seasoned listener, and the second half of the record mostly finds him stumbling over himself. "A Good God" rattles off whimsy but somehow comes off, in his words, "so f'in precious." The tentative clanging that accompanies "Girl Underground" is spoiled by his shuddering affectation which tries to convey mental torture, but ends up sounding like a cry for some warm blankets before he freezes to death. Same for "2 x 2 x 2" which probably explains the internal numerology, but I can't get past the Morrissette-worthy overpronunciation that turns "eight" into "aiiiyyyeeet." The should-be closer "Alien Christ" sort of shies away from the album's overall feel with a sturdy melody and storyline that might've been inspired by a “Simpsons” episode, but it's less of a peak than it is an island.
In the end, that's what really hamstrings The Meaning of 8: despite offering all kinds of opportunities for true catharsis, it never bubbles over, even when it desperately tries to. "The Dance of the Dead" starts out innocently enough, with Minowa pushing the line "This is the dance that brings the dead to the living / Just say 'I miss you'" perilously close to pandering. But halfway through, the choir bludgeons you with "Can you hear them come?" as if you couldn't already tell this was a POIGNANT MOMENT. I let that shit slide on "Transatlanticism," and I don't know if I'm ready to do it again. Likewise, "The Song of the Deaf Girl" gets reprised as the album's last track: a minute and a half of dead, obvious silence. It becomes fitting; The Meaning of 8 promises greatness, but waiting for it is to anticipate a moment that never arrives.