For a band with as unitary a vision as composer/lyricist Ellis Ludwig-Leone’s for his octet San Fermin, there’s a dizzying lot of gears and gizmos grinding beneath and above the surface of its palatial take on baroque pop. Their 2013 debut, conceived and scored by Ludwig-Leone after a brief exile in the Canadian Rockies, harkened to the genre’s previous heyday 10-years-or-so prior while showing up the equally lovesick likes of Stars, Sufjan Stevens and Arcade Fire with the sheer volume of its arrangements and talent. For its part, “Jackrabbit,” their follow-up, dials back the romance and whips out new tricks in pursuit of something more mature and astonishing.
Getting there, though, takes some uneasiness. That happens immediately, too, with the plunky piano triads that brush awake the album’s opener, “The Woods.” Singer Allen Tate plays storyteller, introducing some sort of odd Grimm fable about two characters venturing into the forest. The odd intervals guiding the simple intro underscore the discomfort in the narrative. “Two went in and one came home,” he sings. “We didn’t go in there alone.”
Whatever your key into the woods metaphor is — uncertainty, chaos, evil — don’t stress about it. Tate’s character, or some part of him, dies in there, betrayed by his own innocence (“I was a boy and I was good, but there are witches in these woods.”). After the canon layers the piano, Tate, double-time drums and the horns and strings high enough, the whole scene rips wide open and the horror comes screaming in. An absolutely monstrous bari sax polyphony, joined by trumpet fire and an acrid smell of carnage, leave the fairy tale in disarray. By the end, Tate’s character, whether literally or otherwise, stays behind, “still buried in the mud, the skin and bones and brains and blood.”
That violence lingers heavily moving forward. In “Ladies Mary,” Charlene Kaye offers her response. If we keep treating this like a concept album, and we should, then this would be her looking back years later, still afraid to live, running spirited mental cascades in soprano that contrast her emotional paralysis. Similar to “San Fermin,” “Jackrabbit” sees Kaye (here replacing Lucius duo Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig) trading off the lead with Tate in a sort of conversation. Last time, for every pretentious lament Tate crooned in his stainless baritone (Matt Berninger comparisons encouraged but not definitive), Wolfe and Laessig would pull him in unison back to the real world. Here, the divide between Tate and Kaye is more pronounced and somewhat reversed. Throughout the first act, Kaye goes through all the life stages of a loving, lost and lonely indie rocker with Tate’s ghost meanwhile whispering in her ear things she already knows.
That doesn’t stop her from kicking back. The album’s title track, which is also its best, is Kaye’s mocking response to Tate’s dancey “Emily” before it. “Another day older, and another day we grow, oh no, alone again with all these people,” she sings, referencing her partner’s lyrics. It’s possible she’s talking to herself, though. Life, it seems, is one big ordeal that ends in the worst way possible. Surely there’s something better than living it. In an interview with Billboard, Ludwig-Leone described the song as “fight-or-flight with a marching band,” a pivot for many of the album’s biggest themes. Its big brassy chords and drum line cadences fire up a song that is entirely Kaye’s. It’s a fearsome vocal feat, a frantic force of nature that nonetheless sounds like it comes from a real place of panic inside both its singer and its writer.
Its momentum grinds to an immediate halt, though, with the last “run for the hills” as if Kaye is shaken from a dream. After all, nothing in the real world can be that seamless. The songs that follow all have some sort of destabilizing element, whether it’s the unhinged guitar backing under the calming “Astronaut” or the sax punches in “Philosopher.” Both outline further trials for the characters, but the sonic evil that eviscerated the beginning bubbles beneath. It doesn’t boil over, though, until the menacing synth-buzzing vignette “Woman in Red.” Here, Tate plays some sort of predator stalking a woman at a party. The chilling lyrics (“I can show you a good time if you let me,” or “You can’t expect a man not to fantasize”) and hammering energy remind us of all the ugliness we tried to block out after “The Woods.”
It sticks like pitch, dripping and blistery. After a sweet-then-sickened interlude, the next song, “Parasites,” brings the first duet. Miles apart from the debut’s beautiful “Methuselah,” It’s packed with skin-searing dissonances, fife twitters, industrial fuzz and a hoedown passage. Kaye and Tate trade nasty propositions rather than sweet words. The whole thing is chaos, a monster barreling through a cement wall and slobbering on the floor. Its dizzying orchestration can overwhelm at times, but it’s fascinating to feel so unsettled. “Reckoning,” for contrast, uncoils from that tension quietly. Tate gives more words of wisdom over a folky fiddle line, having watched his friend grow old. Another interlude heralds the finale, and it starts to come together.
In the first of “Two Scenes,” Kaye looks back on youth, chugging through images of girls and boys who fall in love and go to the woods to dance, injecting one last minor-keyed dose of fear. Soaring horns and her soprano voice then run back through what sounds like the anthemic “Jackrabbit” progression. The clouds then part, and a single ray of sunlight comes down on Tate. “Try to remember sometimes, you’re skin and bone,” he says in summary, because he knows it. Between the same quiet squeaky notes that we hear at the very beginning, he sings of his astronaut seeing home in a blue dot. Kaye comes in on counterpoint, recalling her philosophers and movie stars.
The song is a memory of everything the album’s lived up to then, and it has a lesson. Life is one big ordeal that ends in the worst way possible, but it has its beauty. The final track is where the bows would go, with lovingly stuttered references to the frightened “Billy Bibbit” from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Its purpose is quick and sure. “Everybody dies, I wouldn’t try to force it,” Kaye sings to him, in anticipation of his suicide. There’s no fighting it, so live while we’re here. There’s nothing about life, not the witches in the woods nor the wolves in the night nor the creeping parasites in our minds, that we can change. Instead, don’t try. “Give into love,” it ends, “and get what you want.”