No way will this review ever do linguistic justice. It’s as futile as saving the life in the opening scene of Cliffhanger. Dare I compare Bothwell to Sylvester Stallone? Nah, well…yes. Unlike Rocky, Astronautalis improves with age and each iteration. The Jacksonville wordsmith had the arena-sized expectations to live up to, especially after Eyeball Records gave us Pomegranate. To me, Eyeball meant off-kilter punk and indie rock the likes of Kiss Kiss, Sleep Station, The Killing Tree and Murder By Death. Granted I’m waiting for an astronaut meets conch shell mini Western novel soundtracked by Ennio Morricone, but till that time comes we have This Is Our Science to stave us off.
To get y’all up to speed, Astronautalis was using “yer” well before Johnny Foreigner evidenced by his 2003 debut You & Yer Good Ideas. “Gaston Ave” was a scratchy introduction, premiering a lackadaisical singing or rhyming that was more akin to a shadowed fellow in the corner booth of a townie bar with wisdom to bestow upon whoever overheard him than the typical forwardness and flash of songwriters and rappers at the time. “Somethin’ For The Kids” was similar. He ratcheted up the whisky growl of his music with “The Wondersmith and His Sons” and “The Case of William Smith” on Pomegranate. Tossing convention from the midnight train, our hint at the new album came through DANCEHALLHORNSOUND!!!!, a mixtape sampling Jay-Z and Lady Gaga as he “traded in your indie friends and returned for the radio…” Hint because it’s the first taste we get of Tegan collaborating with Astronautalis, per say-she provides him fodder for his famous freestyling over the phone. With This Is Our Science, we not only see his music progressing, but a proper collab between the Vancouver singer and Seattle-turned-Twin Cities resident.
This is Our Science is the most confident album yet. It’s well-oiled, shedding the wanderings of “17 Summers” and “My Old Man’s Badge” that weighed down Pomegranate. He does have downtempo moments, but they are vastly improved to be less of speed bumps on a gravel road. “Measure the Globe” removes beats for a stripped down serenade with a muted acoustic strumming and tempered, punctuated piano. “I couldn’t tell you, dear, which one whispers in my ear. The devil or Saint Andrew, but I know it’s time to go.” As songs go, these moments as well as “Midday Moon” and “Lift the Curse” show a much needed progression, something that I’ve been seeing in Witness more so as on “God’s Favorite Sketches”. The latter, “Lift the Curse”, begins as if a humble string and piano overture to a 1940s film setting the sound stage; “Everyone who’s drinking is already drunk or sleeping. Everyone who isn’t is just too political to talk to.” The heart thumps to the drumbeats over Astronautalis’ singing/rhymes shake off the signature weary or worldly malaise halfway through that is the most convincing moment of the album. Yet, these are the slow moments, the tempo troughs, of the album. Let’s move to the quickness.
“The River, The Woods” is the masthead, the driving force that pushes punk-ish “wohs” and its fuzzed keys and staggered drumbeat forward. It’s rightfully overwhelming musically that unless you’ve sharpened your ears to be keen on his words, you’d miss over some of the better first song lyrics you’ve heard in recent time. “Some follow the compass, some follow the cross. Me, I follow roads compulsively till sirens call me off” breaks later into these philosophical musings meant to set fire underneath the listener:
“So this is why we try, we bet it all on hopeless and swim against the tide until our every bone is broken. A sinking ship is still a ship, no captain has spoke the obit till the crew is flew, crow’s nest slips silent beneath the ocean. We set sail without an anchor, waiting for that hammer drop. It holds you by the ankles till it pulls you to the Acheron. Trade stable to be able to slip out from under devil’s thumb.”
“This Is Our Science”, on first listen, risks sacrificing flow with downtempo before Astronautalis overtakes himself in a biting style similar to halfway through “Contrails”. The sneaky slip of the P.O.S. sample is something I wish would happen more often, and what Slug does so well. The self-referencing, I feel, would up the intelligent lyricism and make everything seem subtly more coherent like a cleverly designed plot. “Dimitri Mendeleev” pulls the catchiness of DANCEHALLHORNSOUND!!!! into its underlying beat and spitfire without stuttering delivery, a pure highlight if not the strongest track. It’s also reminiscent of “Seaweed Sheets” off The Mighty Ocean & Nine Dark Theaters. Meanwhile, “Thomas Jefferson” is placed, or forced given how fierce Astronautalis sounds, between the slow, sage songs and the fire and brimstone preacher (or history teacher) that has captivated audiences of his live shows.
This is Our Science removes the layers of peeling lacquer over the strangeness that laced Astronautalis’ first albums, dare I say earlier albums now that he’s four in. He’s confident now, has trailblazed his own path mixing rap, indie rock and folk stylings, which concert go-ers have seen in his calculated, tremendous live performance. It’s parallel to Oaklandazulasylum to Alopecia with Why?. Yes, they’re both literate rappers with Astronautalis holding as many historical references as Aesop has fables. But if I had just one of Bothwell’s records after waking up in 2032 San Angeles, I’d rather have This Is Your Science than prior personal favorite Pomegranate.