The best feeling in the world is the one you get when a record just swoops in and knocks you completely off your feet. It’s especially satisfying when the record is from a band that you’ve been following for years, just waiting for the stars to align for them. The last song finally fades out and through the goosebumps you say out loud, “They finally hit the nail on the head.” Enter Anberlin with their newest album Vital, due Oct.16 with Universal Republic.
The album kicks off with “Self-Starter.” I could argue that this is the best song that the band has ever produced. Anberlin wastes no time. “Self-Starter” is basically concentrated energy and a hint of what is to come for the remainder of Vital. Anberlin is absolutely in their element; the song boasts one of the best drum fills of the band’s career by Nathan Young and another astounding vocal performance by the ever-versatile Stephen Christian (who is on a roll this year, having just released an awesome solo album in July).
The most immediately striking difference here from the last two albums is the production. While Neal Avron and Brendan O’Brian (producers of Anberlin’s New Surrender and Dark is the Way, Light is a Place, respectively) are veterans of the craft, Aaron Sprinkle (producer of Anberlin’s first three albums) might as well be considered a sixth member of the band. He knows their strengths so well, and he never fails to bring out the best from each member.
While “Self-Starter” absolutely has enough energy to let the band glide by on a few slower songs, this is not the game that Anberlin plays on Vital. The following cut, “Little Tyrants” is a spiteful rocker with a youthful tone that is reminiscent of the band’s Blueprints for the Black Market days. This is not to say that Anberlin has regressed. Rather, they have taken all of the best elements of each of their preceding albums and fine-tuned them. “Type Three,” for example, is a moody, sweeping song that would have fit in well with the melancholic Dark is the Way, Light is a Place.
On the other hand, nothing feels recycled. Standout track “Intentions” is a dancy, 80s-influenced number that feels right at home with the rest of Vital. “Modern Age” is a passionate, distortion-filled cut that will surely be a fan favorite. Then there’s the opinionated “Someone Anyone” which may sound like it could have been on 2005’s Never Take Friendship Personal on the surface, but it’s set apart from older songs by its down-to-earth content with lyrics inspired by the Egyptian revolution.
As always, Anberlin is not afraid of the electronic elements. Vital is laced with tasteful synthesizers that add another dimension to the songs, filling up the empty space and making the album sound full and layered but never overwhelming or cluttered.
While 2010’s Dark is the Way, Light is a Place was a big step forward from Anberlin’s 2009 major label debut New Surrender, it was still bogged down by repetitive lyrics and predictable song structures (two-line verse, one-line chorus, two-line verse). On Vital, the lyrics are still concise but they never become stale. Lines like “will we ever get the chance to walk alone/in this life or when we find out that we’re home” and “anyone can start a war/no one can walk away truly alive” show off Christian’s revealing style of brutally honest and thoughtful lyricism, returning to the themes of self-examination and isolation that made 2007’s Cities a fan favorite.
Vital draws to a close with “God, Drugs and Sex,” a song that lives up to the high standards that Anberlin has set for their closing tracks with “(*fin)” from Cities and “Dance, Dance, Christa Paffgen” from Never Take Friendship Personal. The big difference here is that “God, Drugs and Sex” fits very naturally at the end of Vital, because this time around Anberlin has chosen not to save all of its potential for one epic closing track. No, Vital is a cohesive demonstration of Anberlin’s talent all the way through. This is the reason why Vital is undoubtedly the most important album of Anberlin’s career and arguably one of the best albums of the year thus far.
Critic’s Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Jordan Walsh can be reached at email@example.com.