By Tanner Low
Many consider the struggle between making art and making money as purely a never-ending tug-of-war; when one side takes an inch, the other must give way somehow. Because art is rarely appreciated in its time, it’s not hard to understand an artist’s decision to bend towards profitability—you can’t really eat exposure or acclaim. Bands endorse products, producers write commercial jingles, singers consign to labels. When Fictionist and their record label Atlantic parted ways after a contentious couple of years and opened the path for their debut 2014 LP, they felt the artistic freedom of an independent band again, the pressures of catering to a business no longer breathing down their necks.
Self-released Fictionist differed from their label-endorsed EP of the same name in many ways. Where the 2011 EP released on Atlantic reflected a bluesy, hushed soft rock tone, their 2014 LP stretched its bounds in every direction as far as possible, becoming a sampler of Fictionist’s boundless potential to be any band they wanted to be. From the smorgasbord of Fictionist, the band could literally go in any direction they wanted.
But rather than continuing to reinvent themselves, Fictionist laid out their assets and zoomed in on one of their LP’s bouncier tracks—the irrepressible “Free Spirit”—and christened a new EP padded with tracks cut from the same cloth. The EP is a welcomed addition to the band’s diverse discography—especially considering that they didn’t name this one Fictionist again—but there is a lack of experimentation on this EP that was so abundantly available on their LP that bothers me.
Free Spirit marks the first new release from the band in almost two years, and with only four songs comprising the tracklist it’s hard not to look at the EP and think, “That’s it?” With all of the diverse effects the band experimented with on Fictionist, they landed on replicating a style that reflected the safe pop-rock of their most radio-friendly single. Gone are the gurgling blips accompanied by synthesized strings of “Cut-String Kite,” the rollicking stadium rock avalanche of “City at War,” and the vocoder-acoustic guitar yin and yang of “Leave the Light On.” In their place stands a Punnett square of tracks, all of a similar phenotype, differing little in genetic make-up, and ultimately indebted to the “Free Spirit” that unmistakably flows through their DNA.
Two of the songs on Free Spirit are skippable, which is detrimental to a four track song cycle, especially when one of the better two songs is “Free Spirit,” which exists on this EP with little to no difference from the version appearing on Fictionist two years ago. Luckily the two best songs bookend the album. With some luck, the energy created on fast-paced swooning and intricate bassline of “Free Spirit” will carry over onto the next two songs, so that those moshing won’t even recognize the switch of the track until the emotional hollering of “Right Now” gushes in among a shower of rainbow synths, closing the record.
The second track, though displaying catchy synth hooks in between chants of “We can sleep when we die!” plays as a cliché high school graduation anthem of the same cheese caliber as something like Fun’s “We Are Young,” The Bravery’s “Ours,” or Owl City’s “Verge.” I think Sanctus Real said it best (though certainly not first) when they similarly sang, “We can’t go to sleep ‘cause we’ll wake up older, We can’t let these nights steal away half our lives.” The idea of not sleeping and staying young and partying all night forever is not new, in fact many times it’s sung by guys at least a generation older than its intended audience, trying desperately to relate to the endless energy of the youth. This honestly wouldn’t be a problem for Fictionist had they not made such a statement two years ago shuttering at the act of selling out on artistic vision to sell more records. With Free Spirit EP, one cannot help but wonder if the conforming of sound and lyric to that of a marketable standard is a backtracking to what they so easily walked away from.
Transitioned in by a plinking keyboard and bluesy bass, third track “High Society” starts out as promising as its predecessor but then quickly diminishes the closer it gets to its chorus. Really, the verses sound fine, but the shift between verse and chorus is so abrupt that the only transition they add in to cover its awkwardness is a malicious laugh that for a moment mutes all lyrics and production. While this album is by no means bad music – indeed, Fictionist is probably producing the highest quality music in Provo, this EP included – it’s hard not to hold them to higher standard. In light of their leaving of Atlantic, self-releasing their debut, and signing with Harbour Records, one can’t help but ruminate on the chorus’ message of, “High society—baby would you die to be a part of it?” and wonder if it all feels a little too accurate for Fictionist.
Make sure to like Fictionist on Facebook and check out the music video for “Free Spirit” below.