Maybe this is the answer: maybe the answer is not to get trapped in questions of whether you are looking too far forward or are stuck in the past, but instead to simply carry on doing something. Greta Van Fleet have carved out a task of Sisyphean proportions with this latest album. I am no longer sure if there is a point, a movement, or a desire to create something ‘beyond’ the music itself. The aim is only to keep the rock, as it were, rolling.
What happened? Is it that nostalgia has become too trite an ambition? Have the last five years finally awakened us to the reality that the past may be better off where it is? Two, three, years ago the interviews headlined the promise of a “cinematic” debut, “dragging” retro into the twenty-first century. And now, the quest finally turns to innovation.
Perhaps this is and always will be the conflict inherent to Greta Van Fleet: trying to find an identity without sounding too much like itself. The last record leant on sentimentality to avoid over-committing to anything present. No artist in recent memory has quite so expertly managed to bottle and sell the feeling that everything was so much better last year.
And now, the challenge is to turn away from that, to write something that sounds neither like the past nor what audiences have come to expect from a rock revival act. The task of The Battle of Garden Gate is merely to plod on, to distance itself from critics who cannot manage an article without reference to L–, while avoiding the trap of trying to be the next big thing.
If this is the conscious plan, then the album starts on the right foot. Its overture balances innovation with influence, coalescing a widening vocabulary into a crisp whole. Instrumentals cascade over each other as if keen to prove themselves before diving into something more experimental. This, it says, is to be the clean break. And then, necessarily, the album settles into something quite different.
‘My Way, Soon’ does not have the roar of ‘Black Dog’ or ‘Hells Bells’ to guide it. Instead it comes into itself slowly. The album’s themes are still drawn from a familiar pool of war and drums and sex. But audiences should note the overall change of tempo. Granted, a handful of fillers populate the middle and ‘Tears of Rain’ could be ‘Hotel California’, but the album seems intent on trying a few things out.
“Its overture balances innovation with influence, coalescing a widening vocabulary into a crisp whole.”
Though now nine years old, Greta Van Fleet is still a relatively young band. The challenge of the second album is to decide whether to capitalise on a trick that works or to steadily evolve with the times. Should the band wish to continue down the route of tight production, throwback guitar riffs and nostalgia, their sound is sure to find radio-friendly popularity between the generations. But should they continue instead down the line of ‘Broken Bells’ and ‘The Weight of Dreams’, the band stand a chance of leaving behind something significant.
On the one hand, there is safety. There is the guarantee of popular appeal through precedent. There will be a career for Greta Van Fleet in writing songs that sound like they used to. But on the other, the band have already begun to see the allure of a break in tradition. After all, such a flair for storytelling cannot be taught; to risk sounding like somebody else would be a waste. The new record seems to capture this, as the band struggles to work out what it wants to be. Overall, it is encouraging.
For now, the album fits. Greta Van Fleet have learnt much from their first outing though are not yet settled on where to go next. In the meantime, it makes sense to carry on making music, experimenting, learning what works and what does not. Life, as they say, can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.
Words by James Reynolds
This article was published as part of The Indiependent‘s May 2021 magazine edition.
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