Luke Temple can't help himself. It's in his blood, his soul, this natural inclination towards the immediate and the accessible, the embracing of evergreen pop sensibilities (and no, "pop" is never a dirty word). These qualities have shone through in spades on previous albums from the band he co-founded, fronts and forms the creative core of, New York-based Here We Go Magic.
Always experimental, always ambitious, the 2008-formed band has taken indie rock on fascinating tangents across two Secretly Canadian-released, critically acclaimed LPs to date, 2010's Pigeons and 2012's Nigel Godrich-produced A Different Ship, which followed a largely self-recorded eponymous debut of 2009. Be Small, the band's fourth full-length record, is equally instant to click with its audience — but the processes informing its production saw them take fresh approaches to their craft.
"I started the bulk of Be Small myself," Temple says. "The band of the past two records just kind of disbanded. People started going their own way, working on their own projects. Which put Here We Go Magic on hiatus for a while. But I made a solo record, Good Mood Fool, in 2013 (Temple's fourth in total), so I was in a home-recording frame of mind. So instead of waiting for a band to get together to do another 'live' Here We Go Magic album, I started recording it myself."
Here We Go Magic has gone through changes since its original starting five burst onto the scene in a 2009 US national tour. As is inevitable in all relationships and groups of friends, the clock ticks and 'life happens'. Longtime keyboardist Kristina Lieberson left in 2011 to front her own band. Bassist Jen Turner, whose fiery virtuosity often took center stage in HWGM's famously unscripted live shows, chose to go her own way in 2012 amid a rigorous continent-hopping tour schedule. Even the band's most collegial founding member and rhythmic backbone, Peter Hale, found himself with the difficult (albeit joyous) choice to closet his touring kit in favor of taking time to raise his first child. Some acts might have called it quits there and then, but Temple and his longest-time musical cohort, HWGM original guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Michael Bloch, remained dedicated. No way was Here We Go Magic disappearing into the ether.
The two resolved to construct an album together, using some material from live sessions recorded previously with Hale and Turner, as well as newer fresher ideas that Temple had begun developing on his own at his home apartment studio. They imagined a fusion of the two sounds — both intimate and intense, both alive and fastened in place — as the way forward for the band's sound. Guitars and synths were tracked direct-to-computer, the aim being to "have the whole record done direct, in the box, with no air in it". Sessions were exchanged back and forth between Temple and Bloch, molded fashioned and ornamented, before drummer Austin Vaughn, in his first collaboration with the group, laid down live drums atop the original digital kit beats. Friends like bassist Brian Betancourt, who will be joining the band on tour, were also called in to add parts.
Temple's compositional inspirations are manifold, and yet everything's been absorbed into his creative DNA in a very natural manner. Having moved away from his childhood home in Cape Anne, Massachusetts, Temple spent a spell of his youth sleeping rough in the woodlands around Seattle. He soon ditched menial jobs in the Pacific Northwest for enrollment in a course at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, having always had a fascination with drawing and painting (he still sketches today, and his work can be seen in the cover art of all three previous HWGM albums). He would progress from portraiture to producing fantastic murals, post-graduation, for New Yorkers' upscale apartments — and one strain of creativity begat another, as songs began to emerge. Longtime followers of his music often note its visual nature, and Temple himself tends to speak of musical production in painterly terms of color and texture, dark and light. Be Small is definitely no exception.
"There's a King Sunny Adé record from 1982 called Juju Music that's done direct into the board for the most part, and it has this close, in-your-ear sound to it," Temple says of some of the initial textural influences on Be Small. Of equal importance are Italian composer Roberto Cacciapaglia's Moroder-like The Ann Steel Album, of 1979, and the work of Brian Eno and Suicide. "But then I have a part of me that loves Duke Ellington, and The Beatles, and stuff that's more ordered and telling a little encapsulated drama. When you create a verse, and a chorus, and a bridge, it's like a little play." Which explains why Be Small, for all its progressions since A Different Ship — the motorik momentum of 'Tokyo London US Korea', the pastoral elegance of 'Girls In The Early Morning' — remains identifiable only as a Here We Go Magic LP.
"I don't think I'm tied to one kind of sound," says Temple. "I think it's nice to create specific little universes from record to record. I like to think in terms of balance, in creating little narratives. On this record, there's a tension between the very major, pop-sounding sounds, and this other, subversive aspect, that's pulling at the music from its other end. That's the tone that I wanted to create. I've always been interested in playing with that tension."
There's clear evidence of the direct, linear sound akin to the West African material Temple had been listening to on the song 'Tokyo London US Korea' — "I'd originally intended on making a whole record of stuff like that," Temple says, before innately summoning his inner-Macca — but those fuller, as he calls them "encapsulated dramas", comprise the bulk of Be Small's material. Temple's a storyteller, his songs the vehicles for observations and reflections of both local and global resonance.
The fuzzily psychedelic 'Candy Apple' is "a tongue-in-cheek song about New York... The city has changed a lot, and it doesn't have the specificity that it once did." 'Falling', a driving indie-pop charmer, "is about the idea of falling in love as being a decision that you make, love as an action rather than an over-sentimentalized feeling. The decision to work through your problems can feel dark, but that decision is also a sign of love." There's that tension at play, in just one track, the stereotypical perception of love skewed by the not-always-rosy realities of its maintenance.
The title-track sings of adopting a different world view to the one the media persistently feeds us: "Everything in our culture is about being bigger and better, stronger and faster, and cheating the natural chaos that's trying to pull us back down into the ground... But maybe we'd be less stressed out and less damaging to the planet if we went in the opposite direction, and thought about being small." And the closer, 'Dancing World', is "about how we only think in terms of our own narrative, the story of man, while the fact is that the planet will destroy us, and we're much smaller than we realize."
As heavyweight as some of the themes on Be Small appear on paper, though, the experience of them is one of brightness, of warmth and that welcoming full-album feeling that sits the listener down and doesn't let them leave until the final note's faded. Delicacy has always been an element in the Here We Go Magic oeuvre, that gentle touch of skin on string, a caress where other acts might deliver attention-seeking cacophony. Be Small is a compelling succession of strong words and affecting melodies, softly realized, a tonal continuation of what's come before — but an evolution, too. It's an album of action, of intent, not passive reaction to events beyond its makers' direct control. It's Temple in his element like never before, inspired and among friends, and it is all the sweeter for it.
(SC315 released: 10/16/15)