ALBUM: All the Times We’ve Had
ARTIST: Ivan and Aloysha
Album release date: February 26, 2013
At last: a band that has tapped into the existential angst of 19th century Russia.
Well, sort of. Tim Wilson, frontman of the Seattle-based five-man band, is open about the fact that the Dostoevskian name was suggested by a producer of theirs, who has deep love for the Russian author’s ground-breaking work The Brothers Karamazov. Two of the three brothers in the story are named Ivan and Aloysha, and they epitomize the prototypical ways of looking at the world: Aloysha, a devout monk and the younger brother, takes the perspective of faith and grace; and Ivan, the eldest, is an atheist, who takes the perspective of science and nature. Their kinship suggests that these ways of encountering life are not mutually exclusive, but in fact ought to dialogue and seek common ground (scientist or deist, fatalist or relativist, we all experience the doubt that says “But what if it’s true that…”).
Naturally, people who have actually read the book assume that there must be some personal reason that the band would name themselves after these extraordinary characters (to do so unthinkingly and just for the sake of sounding “cool” would be preposterous to someone who’s life has been changed by The Brothers Karamazov): and Wilson says there is indeed a parallel between the book and their lyricism in that both revolve around themes of family, good and evil, faith, doubt, and existentialism.
Surprised by Pop
I’ll admit: being a Brothers K devotee myself (and choosing to ignore accusations of being ‘hipster’ because of that fact), and revering the significance of Doestoevsky’s contribution to the world, I wasn’t sure what to expect when a friend recommended the band – “Do you think they’ve even read the book? Have they met Zossima?! Have they read the chapter to end all chapters?” I asked him, indignant. He responded that he didn’t know, but that I shouldn’t knock ’em so fast.
The fact is, I dig the band, and I found this album very enjoyable on the first listen.
The percussion caught my attention right away: while this music is more folk than rock, the drums and percussive section give a drive and buoyancy that get the feet tapping and the shoulders swaying (I might have even done a little bit of head-banging a few times). A delayed, spacious effect is put on the beat, so as to allow for a more easy-going, raw feeling. Electric guitar figures in frequently, but without being overbearing or grandiose: the riffs are done tastefully, interspersed amongst acoustic picking, and keep in pace with the forward momentum set in place by the drum tracks. The main singer has a drowsy, ballad-like voice that’s attractive and gentle, supported by his bandmates’ beachy harmonies.
The sound toes the line between catchy pop and wistful rock, with some folksy juice squeezed in to enhance overall flavor. If we’re splitting hairs I’d say it probably belongs in the “indie-pop” genre: think Shins meets Beatles meets Young the Giant meets Billy Joel – or something like that.
What’s In A Name?
But for as catchy and easy to digest as the songs are, they’re not just ear-candy: lyrically, this is a thoughtful, beautifully vulnerable album that surprised me numerous times with its depth and existentialism. Questions of doubt, fear, identity, death, faith, and salvation are posed honestly, without hints of scorn or apathy – and without sounding cliche.
Most of their lyrical inspiration comes from people and relationships, according to their frontman, the aforementioned Tim Wilson; and every band member contributes in some way to their ever-widening repetoire. “It takes some real loneliness and discontent to write a song,” says Tim. “I’ll be haunted by a phrase – and then the song will just sort of write itself.” This admission of loneliness and discontent, along with a thirst for authenticity, bleeds through as you listen to these lyrics, sprung from the broken but noble hearts of men. Three of the four band members are married with wives and children, and the symbols of their commitment glint on their left hands during performances, interviews, and music videos: the themes of choice and honesty are plain – and yet fresh due to their scarcity across the modern musical landscape.
At first, I stumbled over the fact that they had anointed themselves with a name that carries more weight than they themselves (admittedly) recognized. But sometimes it does seem like a name chooses a subject: when I hear the names Ivan and Aloysha, I’m reminded of the intricacy and messiness of the human person, and the paradoxical nature of life and truth that always keeps us wanting: wanting to be greater, wanting to be received, wanting to know. But for what? What is it that inspires us to even contemplate perfection, and to believe that there is “always more” that we could know, see, do, or love?
Perhaps it is the same something- the same someone – that inspires lines such as this one, from the song Fathers Be Kind.
“Fathers, be kind to your children: it matters what you tell them. Brothers, be good to your sisters. Lovers, leave behind your mistress. Don’t answer to the mediocre lives that have gone ahead, paving the way for the innocent to crumble.”