Last year, crammed into the intimate Corner Hotel, I saw La Dispute perform live for the first time. I’d been a fan for years, but I walked out of that venue with a new favourite band. The songs that had transfixed me on the two albums they had out at the time now whispered constantly in my head, having been brought to glorious life by the Michigan quintet on that small stage. Their music has always been a vivid, visceral experience; Jordan Dreyer’s deeply impassioned vocal delivery and carefully-crafted lyrics telling stories of love, loss, death and decay, backed by tremendous, complex and emotive instrumentation. Calling La Dispute a post-hardcore band is a bit like calling them a rock band; it hardly does their unique and textured sound justice. And now, in 2014, they’ve released their third album, Rooms of the House, an extremely impressive statement of their progress and something of a departure from their established canon.
While Somewhere at the Bottom of the River used the canvas of folklore and myth, and Wildlife strung together anecdotes of pain and loss to tell its central story, Rooms of the House takes yet another approach. It’s definitely a concept album, detailing the breakdown of a relationship despite the best efforts of those involved, it’s a much more mundane tale than the fractured epics that precede it. On Wildlife, the songs were divided by letters and poems, breaking up the narrative into distinct phases and tying the tracks together into a cohesive story, but Rooms uses objects, moments and locations, recurring in the lyrics to make it clear that while the tracks, on the surface, tell different tales, they all relate to the central theme. The collapse of a bridge, blueprints and plans, babies, and coffee burning on the stove weave throughout the album’s brief 11-track length. Where Wildlife sprawls, Rooms feels much more concise, though it doesn’t spill all its secrets at once. ‘Hudsonville, MI 1965′ opens the album and sets the scene for the story, introducing many of the fragments that will become important to the story as its characters take shelter from a natural disaster. ‘First Reactions After Falling Through the Ice’ goes into greater detail in its very personal tale of a brush with death and the lessons learned by the narrator. While the first two tracks burst with the energy we’ve come to expect from La Dispute, ‘Woman (In Mirror)’ makes it clear that they’re not interested in re-treading old territory, it’s slow, soft and understated, the vocals delivered in a spoken-word hush, and the new approach goes over extremely well in delivering its existential message. Things pick back up with ‘Scenes From Highways 1981-2009′ and ‘For Mayor in Splitsville’. Though ‘Splitsville’ didn’t wow me when I heard it before the album’s release, in the context of the album it fits beautifully, the slightly more accessible and straightforward sound doesn’t harm it anywhere near as much as I first thought. Its coda: ‘But I guess in the end/We just moved furniture around’ is key to the album’s narrative and its delivery, screamed amongst the mostly-sung lyrics achieves just the right impact on the listener.
Things get heavier and more intense on the album’s second half, after the midway track ’35′, which builds slowly both lyrically and instrumentally, painting an extremely vivid and emotive tale of a collapsing bridge and the impact of the disaster on different people. ‘Stay Happy There’ touches on all of the thus-far disconnected threads of the album, the storm, the accident, and brings them all together in the life of the narrator as metaphors and memories that help to tell the story of his collapsing relationship. Perhaps the most emotionally impactful song on the record, ‘The Child We Lost, 1963′ tells of a child learning that he had a stillborn sister, and the emotional devastation it wrought on his family. After the gut punch of the song’s final line ‘She said “don’t cry”/Somewhere he holds her/Said a name I didn’t recognize/And the light with all the shadows combined’ comes the second ‘Woman’ song, ‘(Reading)’ a meditation on loneliness and the loss of love. ‘Extraordinary Dinner Party’ reads as a sequel of sorts to ‘Stay Happy There’, in its direct relation to the central story and its narrator’s mental state, and begins to bring it to a conclusion. The conclusion is quite surprising after the heft of what comes before, it comes in the form of the stripped-back spoken word piece ‘Objects in Space’, which directly addresses the titular rooms of the house, the aftermath of the breakup, and the significance of the inanimate objects left behind.
Rooms is very rewarding record that improves upon every listen, every small detail that reveals itself, all the subtle threads that link the songs together. It’s easily La Dispute’s most varied album yet, but, like Wildlife, is best listened to in a single sitting, I feel that many of the songs would suffer slightly when taken out of the album’s context, as ‘Splitsville’ did before. The recording feels very organic, and as always it’s mixed to perfection, highlighting whatever needs the listener’s attention the most to get across the message. The changes of pace here keep Rooms fresh and gripping, which means that every lyrical gut-punch (and there are many) hits its mark precisely. Instrumentally the album is less textured than its predecessor, and some of the intense moments give off a bit of deja-vu, but for the most part they’re just as great one would expect. If you’re looking for beautifully nuanced and poetic music with a strong existentialist underpinning, a dark and visceral story or just a nigh-perfect record, I can’t recommend Rooms of the House highly enough.
TRACK PICKS: ‘Woman (In Mirror)’ ‘Stay Happy There’ ‘Objects In Space’
TRACK SKIPS: If I had to pick, ‘Scenes From Highways 1981-2009′