The smart, unflashy white guitar rock known as emo has become the faceless new face of indie, and, in the form of its sophomore effort, Four Cornered Night, genre standard-bearer Jets to Brazil has released the music's most high-profile album. Throughout the record's first five songs, Four Cornered Night sounds like an out-of-left-field classic -- a postpunk Pet Sounds in the way it maps out the romantic travails of early adulthood with both palpable longing and a remarkably light touch. The persona communicated by frontman Blake Schwarzenbach is downbeat yet generous and hopeful, lamenting a lost love and (more subtly) lost youth with sublime self-awareness and affection. This portion of the record seems to take place on one long, emotionally conflicted, world-stopped summer afternoon, with Schwarzenbach eschewing the loud-fast-rules flavor of his previous band, mid-Nineties punk heroes Jawbreaker, in favor of piano-drenched, midtempo songs.
Songs such as One Summer Last Fall and In the Summer's When You Really Know are casually epic, spinning off-the-cuff observations into nostalgic and romantic testaments. On the former, Schwarzenbach manages to instill lyrics like Kid, what went wrong/We had it all, now it's all gone/I blew my mind out/Now it's your turn to find out with an undercurrent of hope. And the way he spikes lines throughout the song with the word kid serves the same function of encouraging a sense of community between artist and listener, as Bruce Springsteen's sirs do on Nebraska.
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But by track six, the record begins to lose focus; the great, unexpected concept album we think we're listening to runs out of steam and reverts to a fine but typical punk-pop record. The awkward, vaguely country Empty Picture Frame signals a change and leads into riff-heavy conventional punk material that diverges from the earlier songs in both form and content. Four Cornered Night doesn't recover its unique character until the last track, a daring piano ballad called All Things Good and Nice. Courting disaster at every turn, Schwarzenbach at first sounds like a reformed punk kid who's been turned on to All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten and Chicken Soup for the Soul, but the song walks the tightrope between sentimentalism and soulfulness with stunning aplomb. What could very easily be too saccharine to swallow instead comes off as brave and inspirational. All Things Good and Nice also contains a lyric of the year candidate in this perhaps unintentional punk-rock rebuke of the aggressively solipsistic heavy music and rap-metal hordes currently running roughshod over rock culture: Some will say the truth is not so plain/But don't confuse the truth with your pain.