Sophomore albums tend to be heavily scrutinized and picked apart by critics and fans alike, often unfairly. Expectations are amplified when your band’s debut album is a critically acclaimed, Pitchfork-approved, list-topping surprise success like Band of Horses’ debut album was when it was released by Sub Pop Records last year. Some refer to it as the sophomore curse: A band doesn’t want to release an album that sounds so much like its first record that it gets decried as sounding phoned-in or robotically boring, but it also doesn’t want to depart so much from it that it confuses and alienates the band’s fan base.
Band of Horses manages to walk this fine line fairly well. The band’s reunion with producer Phil Ek, who has worked with revered artists like Built to Spill and the Shins in the past, builds on the band’s previously established sound admirably without departing from it in any alarming way. Inspired by the band’s recent relocation back to its native South Carolina, Cease to Begin feels markedly darker, both lyrically and compositionally, drawing on the bittersweet emotions churned up by returning home after a lengthy absence.
The band lost one of its main contributors – bassist and co-songwriter Mat Brooke, who left the band to form Grand Archives – in the wake of its surprisingly successful debut, Everything All the Time. But, the band’s sound remains relatively unchanged. Cease to Begin picks up right about where Everything left off, delivering a batch of 10 guitar-heavy, reverb-laden, drawn-out, atmospheric tracks that meet and occasionally surpass the expectations produced by their predecessors.
Band of Horses’ already grandiose sound becomes more complex on this album. “Is There a Ghost” is an epic opener, a song that begins slowly and quietly, with lead singer and guitarist Ben Bridwell’s ethereal vocals at the forefront, and builds its way into a soaring, almost shoegaze-inspired orchestration. The band delivers layer upon layer of instrumentation that might be enough to carry you away if you close your eyes long enough.
One of the only major changes is that the band spends more time exploring the twangy country sound it had earlier only hinted at, yielding some of the album’s strongest results. On “Detlef Schrempf,” the band all but abandons the wall-of-sound orchestration that pervades most of the other songs, highlighting Bridwell’s characteristically distant, echoing style of singing, which has often drawn comparisons to highly praised artists like Brian Wilson, Doug Martsch and Jim James of My Morning Jacket, to which the band has so often compared.
Cease to Begin probably won’t be as celebrated as the band’s debut – there’s no clear standout song on the album that’s as instantly memorable as “The Funeral” was – but it does offer up beautiful, well-crafted songs that are consistently high-quality, without any filler, and that’s quite an accomplishment in any case, sophomore album or not.