There’s a song on Touché Amoré’s breakthrough third record, Is Survived By, in which frontman Jeremy Bolm replays a conversation he had with Manchester Orchestra’s Andy Hull about the difficulties of writing when everything seems to be going well — it’s “hard to write content.” When Bolm wrote that song however, I doubt he was expecting his contentedness to be broken by the stage four cancer that took his mother’s life on Halloween night, 2014.
Stage Four takes the listener on a very personal journey through all the thoughts and emotions Bolm had during arguably the worst period of his life. The words are fairly blunt and straight-forward and you feel the pain and loss dripping from each word Bolm hoarsely sings. This is one of the most emotional, vulnerable and personal albums I’ve ever heard — it almost feels like an invasion of privacy at times as if I got access to Bolm’s journal or something. His lyrics jump in and out of the various stages of grief within a non-linear timeline of the last two years since his mother died and the lasting memories he had with her. There’s his struggle with faith on the roaring d-beat pace of “Displacement” (“Last week I crashed my car and I walked away unscathed/Maybe that was you asking me to keep my faith”), while tracks like “Flowers and You” and “Eight Seconds” feature Bolm battling with the guilt of not knowing what to say to his mother in her final days (“I didn’t know what to say/just watching you wither away”) and then not being there when she passed (“She passed away about an hour ago/while you were onstage living the dream”).
“New Halloween” is especially excruiciating as Bolm tries to reason with his guilt (“Told myself I was where you’d want me to be/but it’s not that easy”), hopes that her presence will never leave his side, and admits that he still hasn’t had the courage to listen to her last voicemail. These candid revelations are what make Stage Four so emotionally fragile, but it’s little personal details that truly make those revelations resonate, such as the fact that Bolm can’t listen to Sun Kil Moon’s “I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love” and Death Cab’s “What Sarah Said” anymore or childhood memories of home-cooked meals and a small television sitting dangerously above the kitchen sink. It adds color to the already lucid imagery running through Stage Four’s lyrics.
It’s shouldn’t be a shock to anyone that this write-up amongst countless others focuses a lot on Bolm’s lyrical and vocal contributions to Stage Four — both performances are the best of his career. But it’d be a shame to not spend as much time discussing the incredible strides Bolm’s bandmates have made on Stage Four, as Touché Amoré’s four musicians rallied around Bolm’s deeply personal and heavy lyrics to create the most expansive and diverse Touché Amoré album to date. Nick Steinhardt and Clayton Stevens’ soaring guitar melodies and lush tones invoke the spirit of Explosions In The Sky, Mogwai, and The National — with the latter’s influence all over the record. Much has been made of Bolm’s clean vocals and how he likes to mimic the delivery of Matt Berninger and Leonard Cohen (vocals that bring an incredible depth to tracks like “Water Damage”) but the music follows suit as well. The opening chords of “Posing Holy” flow like a faster version “I Need My Girl” while “Benediction” and “Skyscraper” contain bridges and builds that recall the same type of sprawling walls of sound the Dessner brothers have masterfully pulled off on tracks like “Mr. November” and more.
Touché hasn’t totally abandoned their hardcore roots, as tracks like “Eight Seconds” and “Softer Spoken” each run under two minutes and contain the constant bursts of roaring guitars and Bolm’s unmistakable yelp. Still though you hear the refinement of the band’s sound, especially in the rhythm section of drummer Elliot Babin and bassist Tyler Kirby, providing a focused intensity throughout.
But Stage Four shines the most when both styles collide and create memorable tracks like “Flowers and You” and “Displacement,” songs that blister yet soothe as pop undertones are woven in each song’s DNA. And then there’s the massive “Skyscraper” — its aforementioned build is continually escalated by the gorgeous duet between Bolm and Julien Baker before being swallowed alive by Bolm’s deafening scream of “You live there/under the lights.” After nearly 40 minutes of anger, hopelessness, questions, grief, and guilt, it feels like Bolm is maybe finally coping with the loss of his mother, as the final voicemail he couldn’t listen to before plays as the record fades out. And even though the death of a parent is something you truly never recover from, Bolm finds some clarity and catharsis in Stage Four’s final moments, soaking in the life and love of his mother within her favorite city.
‘Stage Four’ is Touché Amoré’s fourth full-length release and first for Epitaph Records. It’ll be available worldwide on September 16, 2016.