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For The Sake of Bethel Woods Zara Hedderman , March 14th, 2022 09:32

Midlake make an unexpected return, but have they arrived too late for the party? asks Zara Hedderman

The cover of Midlake’s unexpected fifth record is a painting of a young boy caught in a contemplative moment. The image comes from Woodstock, the 1970 documentary about the fabled music festival which took place on a vast dairy farm in Bethel, New York. The pensive spectator is, in fact, Midlake’s keyboardist and flautist Jesse Chandler’s father who, aged sixteen, hitchhiked to the three day event in 1969. To have Chandler’s father as the central visual aid for the Texan-based sextet’s latest body of work feels appropriate. Without him, it’s possible For The Sake of Bethel Woods may have never come to exist. Like a scene from a movie, Chandler’s father (who passed away in 2018) visited him in a dream with a message: “Get the band back together.”

For much of their career, Midlake existed in their own vacuum of time. They even seem to be aware of it on ‘Of Desire’, the closing track to For The Sake of Bethel Woods, “We’re working it out but time can really really play some tricks on us now.” While the context of the line is rooted in romantic despair, it also feels relevant to Midlake’s trajectory from their 2006 breakthrough LP, The Trials of Van Occupanther up to their re-emergence in 2022. With that record, Midlake, then fronted by vocalist Tim Smith, flawlessly heralded a melodic potency of 1970s harmonies akin to Fleetwood Mac, and mined motifs from British prog-rock along the way. Smith’s acrimonious departure in 2012 incited an impetus for his former bandmates to be bolder and more contemporary in their compositions: to move with the times. This sonic rejuvenation culminated in 2013’s Antiphon, a statement many had come to accept as their swansong. That was until January of this year when their electrifying single, ‘Bethel Woods’ arrived with little warning. There were aspects to the arrangement – the lamentful keyboard melody, propulsive percussion and unforgettable chorus – that felt like a line being retrospective drawn between Van Occupanther and the more electronically inclined Antiphon. It held promise for the band’s future.

Returning to the studio during the quiet of the pandemic and working with John Congleton, the first external producer to contribute to their sound, vocalist Eric Pulido and co. have made an album of great ambition with eleven expansive and shifting arrangements. Unfortunately, Midlake is five years too late to make a lasting impression with this release. Here, the combined musical touchstones are as left-field as Midlake’s return. The temperament of ‘Glistening’ is reminiscent to Grizzly Bear’s Painted Ruins, Hall & Oates dwell in the groovy bass riff throughout ‘Gone’, while the vocal treatment applied to Pulido’s far more restrained performance on the tender ‘Noble’ transform this into a Sufjan Stevens’ number. The melancholic piano on closer ‘Of Desire’ immediately takes the listener back to 2002-era Coldplay.

Along with the unstoppable force of ‘Bethel Woods’, there’re songs here to draw audiences back. Notably, ‘Feast of Carrion’ a sweet composition combining elements of Led Zeppelin, Steely Dan and Graham Nash’s honeyed harmonies. Elsewhere, provides ‘Meanwhile’, one of a few instances where the band indulge in their musicianship and effortlessly engage their audience. More often than not, enjoyment from this record stems from isolated movements and textures within songs such as the scuzzy bass parts countered by liminal flute accompaniments on ‘Exile’ or the dreamlike 1960s-like beats on the aforementioned ‘Meanwhile’. Ultimately, listening to For The Sake of Bethel Woods becomes an exercise of pinpointing the many artists Midlake are imitating and not the ways they are innovating their music. A good album, but one better suited to a former time.