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Maps & Atlases - Lightlessness Is Nothing New Music Album Reviews

Maps & Atlases - Lightlessness Is Nothing New Music Album Reviews
After a six-year hiatus, the Chicago math-rock-turned-pop-rock act returns with a deceptively upbeat album inspired by the death of singer-guitarist Dave Davison’s father.

For a band whose name denotes tools used to find and be found, Maps & Atlases seem more fascinated by absence and its aftermath. Across their debut album, 2010’s Perch Patchwork, and its follow-up, 2012’s Beware and Be Grateful, the Chicago math-rock-turned-pop-rock band examined the loss of love, youth, and even self using polyrhythms and muscular fretwork. If the exploration was going to be layered, so, too, would the music.

On their first album in six years, Lightlessness Is Nothing New, the band tackles a different kind of absence: the death of a parent. In 2012, singer and guitarist Dave Davison lost his father and began working through that ordeal as a solo artist, after Maps & Atlases ebbed toward a natural, if unofficial, hiatus. Eventually, however, he turned to drummer Chris Hainey and bassist Shiraz Dada to help flesh out what he’d written. (Guitarist Erin Elders made an official exit in 2015 to concentrate on his band Wedding Dress.)

Now a trio, Maps & Atlases connect the roller-coaster guitar fretting and weighted timbres of their earlier albums with frenetic synth touches. In addition to working with their longtime producer Jason Cupp, they brought in Scott Solter (the Mountain Goats, Okkervil River), who pushed their sound further in the direction of pop-rock and streamlined the band’s tendency toward striation. The polished result is their most accessible album to date, touching on Peter Gabriel’s fizzy pop proclivities and reaching for TV on the Radio’s early grandness.

Even though it was set in motion by death, it’s reductive to understand Lightlessness as an album solely about grief and its lapping wake. Where grief is conspicuous, the band dramatizes it as a tug of war between Davison’s dour, diaristic lyricism and their coruscating melodies. Standout “Fall Apart” finds the trio working together to create a staccato beat that enlivens the song's stifling imagery. Gloomy thoughts aren’t always best served by gloomy sounds.

More often, the band explores the confusing and confining ways a person’s absence can transform a dialogue into a monologue. Throughout Maps & Atlases’ catalog, Davison has often held conversations with friends or lovers who have moved on. But the singular loss of his father brings him face-to-face with larger doubts. An astute lyricist capable of bending a phrase to his whimsical metaphors, Davison moves away from that density and creates his own echo chamber on Lightlessness. “Ringing Bell,” “Learn How to Swim,” and “Fog and the Fall” run red with repetition, as Davison’s vocals race along at a manic clip, underscored by sinewy synths and nimble guitar fretwork. “Where do we go?” he repeats on the latter.

Davison doesn’t concern himself with finding answers because the questions he poses are not meant to end in understanding. On “Violet Threaded,” a song that invokes both Gotye and Gabriel, he sings, “We dug our histories in the mud/And then a crescent smirked across the stars and gave it all a name.” Meaning becomes random after events that shatter everything we think we know about the world. “We might never find love/We might never find life here,” Davison notes in the chorus. The only certainty in life is uncertainty, but that doesn’t make the march forward any easier. The ten tracks on Lightlessness nestle into that discomforting truth.

Uncertainty eventually transforms into self-doubt as the album progresses. Closer “Wrong Kind of Magic” pangs with the revelation that the absence of a central force in Davison’s life mirrors some larger absence in himself. One of the record’s slower songs, it winds and weaves toward lament, concluding with the declaration, “Sometimes I can’t see what life there might be/Sometimes I can’t see beyond the flood.” It’s not just that Davison isn’t sure meaning exists—it’s that, even if life does have a purpose, he doesn’t trust himself to find it. Without the dialogue he craves, he’s left asking “Am I doing this right?” but receiving no response.

Maps & Atlases have always dreamed big when it comes to their sound, and they infuse their third album with heady, melodic production that spotlights the complex experience of absence. More than focusing on a lack, though, Lightlessness Is Nothing New captures how absence can become a radiating presence that infiltrates and upends every aspect of life.

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