St. Paul & The Broken Bones takes us on a journey along The Alien Coast

Whenever I step back to consider some of my favorites, St. Paul & The Broken Bones always feels like a bit of an outlier, and yet, they are always in that first or second tier of names I think of or mention in response to the notorious “what’s your favorite band” question. Whether it’s their consistently captivating live show, their effortlessly eclectic sonic nature, or the fact that they never make the same album twice, the Birmingham-based band has held a special place in my heart for the better part of four years. So for an act I was accustomed to seeing a new album from every couple of years, forty months felt far too long to wait. Now, that wait is over, and the group led by Paul Janeway is back to take listeners on yet another fantastic sonic journey with their latest effort, The Alien Coast.

The first thing immediately apparent about the band’s aptly-titled fourth LP is its sonic aesthetic: known for their healthy use of horns throughout much of their music, The Alien Coast actually sees them pulling back a bit on this signature sound in favor of spacier, more futuristic elements. Horns still play a role, but they feel quite a bit more subtle than before, showing up on transitions such as is the case with “Minotaur” or simply as punctuation to the musical phrasing like with “Ghost in Smoke.” There are even some songs where the horns are virtually nonexistent.

Instead, the eight-piece collective opt to pair their dynamic soul with styles like R&B on the gliding penultimate cut “Popcorn Ceiling;” funk with the vamping instrumental “Atlas” and the pulsing lead single “The Last Dance;” ‘80s-heavy synths on the monumental album highlight and title track “Alien Coast;” and even psychedelia at certain points, such as on the howling “Hunter and His Hounds.” All of these new sonic pairings together result in a sometimes smoother, sometimes vibier, but overall a better-rounded St. Paul & The Broken Bones.

While the aforementioned cuts see the group employing a wider range of styles, instrumentation isn’t the only aspect where this holds true. They also explore somewhat unfamiliar territory vocally, occasionally experimenting with whispered deliveries, both in the “devil” parts of “Bermejo and The Devil” and on the beginning of the verses from the title track, the latter of which is an early contender for song of the year, even just one month into 2022. Of course, Janeway’s notoriously soulful and often gospel-oriented vocals are still front and center throughout, but he doesn’t just replicate what we heard on the band’s first three records, and this is true with the album’s lyrical output as well.

In fact, the lyrics may be the one thing that is most unique about The Alien Coast. A few of the themes so rampant on their earlier material reappear here, like the religious allusions of “3000 AD Mass” and the tender serenading of “Love Letter from a Red Roof Inn,” which together bookend the LP quite well. However, this time Janeway takes inspiration from many different sources, and the result is this glorious, wide-spanning grouping of songs that is at times mythological (“Bermejo and The Devil”), at times apocalyptic (“The Last Dance” and “Alien Coast”), and at times reflective (“Ghost in Smoke”).  

The Alien Coast somehow feels firmly planted in the past, present, and future—both sonically and thematically. It is the stunning next step in the Alabama natives’ sonic evolution, taking the signature sound from their first three efforts and rendering it simply as a stepping stone to their next great moment, which is now. And while some artists who “never make the same album twice” can regress on later releases, St. Paul & The Broken Bones just continue to level up.

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