Album of the Month: Woods’ Beautiful, Autumnal ‘Bend Beyond’

It’s finally starting to feel like fall, thankfully — the oppressive humidity of summer is gone, the leaves are starting to change color, and there’s a chill in the air at night. This is my favorite time of the year, and it needs a soundtrack, preferably one that’s quiet and shot through with just the right strain of melancholy. And since those Nick Drake and Radar Bros albums are starting to get worn out, thank goodness for perpetually underrated Brooklyn psych-folk band Woods, whose new album Bend Beyond arrived right on cue last week.

Woods have been doing a fine line in pastoral psychedelia since 2005, and doing it at a pretty impressively prolific rate — they’ve averaged at least one thoroughly worthy release a year since their debut record How To Survive In/In the Woods dropped that year. The first thing one notices about Bend Beyond is that it’s certainly the band’s most accessible piece of work to date. That’s not to say that their albums have been particularly difficult in the past, but if extended psychedelic noodlings weren’t your thing, at least some of the songs on any given Woods record would have left you cold.

Not so this record — Pitchfork spent several paragraphs of a thoughtful review discussing how Bend Beyond has reined in Woods’ jam-band tendencies, resulting in an album that’s succinct and coherent. And while we’ve enjoyed some of Woods’ more freeform moments over the years, we’d have to agree — this album finds the band embracing a new-found songwriting discipline, and they’re better for it.

This development, along with the fact that Bend Beyond features a surfeit of distinctly hummable melodies and its arrangements are also pleasantly breezy and upbeat, means that this is a record that makes for deceptively pleasant listening on first listen. But like the season this album evokes, there’s a chill in the air underneath the sun-dappled warmth of these songs. Singer and Woods main man Jeremy Earl’s lyrics are as poetically abstract as ever, but there’s nevertheless a creeping unease to them that’s best exemplified by the ambiguous declaration during the chorus of penultimate track “Impossible Skys” [sic]: “It’s horrible/ I’m awake.” And occasionally, an unguarded moment arrives: “Ain’t it hard,” Earl asks at one point, “to say it ain’t easy?”

More so than anything identifiable in the lyrics, there’s a general sense of indefinable sadness here, a feeling that evokes empty, silent afternoons, staring into the endless blue sky as the days float slowly by: “What a wonderful waste,” Earl sings on “Lily” over a sparse acoustic backing, “Oh, those were the days.” The melodies manage to be all the more poignant for their undeniable prettiness — even the album’s most upbeat moments, like the terrifyingly catchy “Cali in a Cup,” still seem to leave you feeling just a wee bit blue as you sing along.

It’s a delicate balancing act, this, to make a record that’s both sad and beautiful, an album that evokes melancholy without ever being maudlin or sinking into self-pity. But Earl carries off the challenge with aplomb, making this the most fully realized incarnation of Woods’ artistic vision yet. It’s a record that will sit just beautifully next to Five Leaves Left and The Fallen Leaf Pages in the pile of records next to our stereo as the leaves start falling for another year.