Last time out, Touché Amoré offered up an unflinching document of loss, with 2016’s Stage Four recounting Jeremy Bolm losing his mother to cancer in excruciating detail. It was, to say the least, a tough listen, but offered him closure – to some degree, at least. In doing so, it went to places some would shy away from, but the Los Angeles quintet have never hesitated to tackle difficult subjects, which is both a blessing and a curse for their leader. ‘I’ll Be Your Host’, the third single from its follow-up, finds him burdened by similar stories of loss as he paints a picture of a man struggling, ‘a shell of his former self’ and reluctant totem of sorrow.
The rippling effects of grief are a recurring motif throughout Lament, their fifth album and second for Epitaph Records, most notably on its title track: “I lament / Then I forget / So I lament / Til I reset.” The issue is that it never quite goes away, manifesting in different forms, affecting a person in different ways. Some are physical (“I’m lost now, loss tires”, to quote Manchester Orchestra’s Andy Hull, who guests on the slow-burning ‘Limelight’), and others less tangible – “Sometimes the slightest thing will split my head in half” Bolm admits on mid-album highlight ‘Savoring’. Learning to live with that – and accepting that time may not heal all wounds – is one of the record’s key tenets, but so is finding solace in what’s left.
Bolm’s isolated vocals herald ‘Come Heroine’, the album’s fiery opener, which kicks things off with a blast of typical intensity, drummer Elliot Babin’s breakneck pace sweeping things along as Bolm draws the listener into the headspace he occupies on the album. Loss affects a person in myriad ways: – but equally as affecting is the love that their band name references and Bolm has found in his long-term partner. “I’m softer now, not hollowed out” he clarifies as a changed man, as the song sets the scene for all that follows.
Their lineup completed by guitarists Nick Steinhardt & Clayton Stevens, and bassist Tyler Kirby, the band’s sound has developed considerably in tandem with Bolm’s changing outlook, with the no-frills approach of …To the Beat of a Dead Horse and Parting the Sea Between Brightness and Me giving way to something more expansive by way of ruminations on legacy and self-worth on Is Survived By. Their latest offering continues to push Touché’s sound forward – aided by the infamously demanding producer Ross Robinson – while able to be viewed as a companion piece to its predecessor.
These songs are not necessarily about the same things, but the starkly personal lyrical outlook remains – it’s been one of their key features since their 2007 inception, but has taken on greater significance in the wake of Stage Four. Bolm ponders his abilities as a songwriter numerous times here, with ‘Feign’ particularly self-effacing even as he switches to a more melodic – yet no less impassioned – style of delivery: “I’m a sparkling diamond when I have my doubts / Do I die a little less often when I feign profound?” ‘Reminders’, meanwhile – buoyed by a reunion with Julien Baker, who popped up on ‘Skyscraper’ four years ago – is up there with the most direct songs they’ve ever written, documenting clashes with anxiety (“With a head so beat and drained, I’m running on empty”) but contrasting the worried rush of its verses with a soaring chorus boosted by gang vocals and a plea to stay grounded: “I need reminders of the love I have / Good or bad.”
It’s outside the wheelhouse of what many listeners may expect, but in a similar way to their confidence in tackling dark subject matter, the band are unafraid to take risks – in many ways, Stage Four was a watershed moment for them, and all bets are off. Sister songs “A Broadcast” and “A Forecast” are prime examples of this, with the former sprinkled with pedal steel guitar (supplied by Steinhardt) and unexpected levels of restraint. Even when it surges forth into a wordless refrain, the band crucially hold themselves back. In some ways, it provides a moment of relief; in others, it makes everything that much more intense.
The latter, meanwhile, features Bolm singing over a piano part played by Babin, acting as an album postscript as it catches the listener up on what the last four years have been like for him – painful anniversaries, getting into jazz, losing family members to right-wing rhetoric (“not to cancer, but the GOP”) – even as he doubts the song’s intent, it serves its place as closer as ‘it couldn’t go left unsaid’, a self-referential nod to his confessional writing style. After a brief pause, the song roars into full-band life as everyone kicks in for its cathartic coda: “I’m still out in the rain, I could use a little shelter now and then” Bolm proclaims, summing up the album’s outlook in two lines – finding comfort where he can amidst those rippling, ever-present aftereffects of loss. A decade since their lineup stabilised, Touché Amoré sound as confident as they ever have – even if their leader is still prone to regard himself, as he does on penultimate track ‘Deflector’, as ‘a faulty poet [and] personal arsonist’. As much a response to previous tragedy as it is set in present-day malaise – yet crucially offering light at the end of the tunnel – Lament is a resounding return from a band who have once again outdone themselves.