The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders defines attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder as "a persistent pattern of inattention or hyperactivity/impulsivity that is more frequently displayed and more severe than is typically observed in individuals at a comparable level of development." I only mention this as an illustration of the lengths I went to in trying to find some sort of useful description for the manic, breathless, ever-changing, and generally unclassifiable confusion that is The Most Serene Republic's third album ...And the Ever Expanding Universe.
The fault is partly mine. Somewhere between first hearing a few of the new tracks online and finally getting round to listening to the whole album, I had kind of forgotten what it was that had inspired me to want to hear more. Is ADD contagious? Regardless, it's hard to find any kind of common thread running through the album's 11 songs. In the time it takes to think "I like this part," whatever you heard has already disappeared, forgotten in the rush to try some newer, cleverer trick. Taken in isolation, each moment might be reason enough to recommend an album. Taken together, they quickly become annoying.
Take the album opener, "Bubble Reputation." It starts off like George Gershwin ... being played by Queen. Then it turns all kooky indie in the style of the Flaming Lips. Or is it more anthemic like Arcade Fire now? Perhaps it's all of them, locked in a room together, having sex. Or fighting. The switchbacks are coming so thick and fast, it's kind of hard to tell, and we're barely one minute in by now. The instrumental "Patternicity" similarly sounds like it's fast forwarding through snatches of a Michael Nyman soundtrack. "All of One is the Other" steers a quiet, constant, beguiling course for two whole minutes before a random attack of histrionics ruins everything.
Which, frankly, is a bit of a shame. Despite the shifts and unevenness, there is also evidence of a prodigious pop talent at work here: the playful girl-boy harmonies on "Heavens to Purgatory"; the inspired mix of chopped-up hip-hop beats and cascading vocal harmonies on "Catharsis Boo"; the loud-quiet dynamic of delicate piano and distorted drums on "No One Likes a Nihilist." But even these successes are ultimately overshadowed by missteps like "Don't Hold Back, Feel a Little Longer." This ill-advised attempt to cross-breed offbeat indie and trashy Euro-house is an ugly reminder of past experiments conducted in the name of "prog."
The album's "ever expanding" title alludes to the Big Bang theory of cosmology, where all matter began in a dense, hot jumble before exploding outward to form stars, planets, and galaxies. Perhaps with the benefit of a little added space and time, The Most Serene Republic can also find some order in the chaos.
The Most Serene Republic play San Francisco's Bottom of the Hill on September 22, 2009. For tickets and information, visit bottomofthehill.com. ...And the Ever Expanding Universe is out now on Arts & Crafts.