In reading some of the early reviews already out there for Les Savy Fav’s fifth album, Root for Ruin, the consensus seems to be that this is reinforcing 2007’s Let’s Stay Friends, itself a slightly conservative version of the group’s particular brand of wild-eyed indie-rock so convincingly delivered on earlier records. 3/5, Rome (Written Upside Down), Go Forth, Inches: These are releases we take for granted as being great both in quality and in timeliness. Maybe we shouldn’t, because Les Savy Fav has finally delivered an album worth shrugging about.
Great news, right? But here’s where it gets stickier (literally): There’s a raging libido on this record, and it delights in dominating the show. I speak mostly of Tim Harrington’s lyrics. The words waste little time going for the throat with shock value courtesy of tits, fucking and wanting you right now. Or this: “Let’s be friends with benefits / You know we’d be into it / I won’t even say we kiss / We just touch our hips / talk to our lips n’ stuff.” After a dozen listens, I’m still not even sure about that final couplet of “Lips n’ Stuff.” All I know is that the song’s title is slurred in a way that suggests he doesn’t even care what happens beyond the benefits. I wonder what his wife Anna thinks of it.
When it’s not sex, it’s frustration. One fuels the other in a feedback loop of awesomely outmoded mall-punk energy. “I am only seventeen / Someone kicked me in the teeth / I could use some enemies / I have excess energies.” But the enemy isn’t the guy kicking him in the teeth, or the girls not giving it up to him, or — I don’t know — his parents. The root for ruin here is Harrington himself, a guy who once successfully channeled youthful liveliness. No matter how many times Harrington begs you to get out of here on “Let’s Get Out of Here,” you only come away thinking that this is some kind of piss-take, like the memories of 2001’s mainstream seemed like a viable source of inspiration because it’s about time someone recognized Sum 41 was, like, at least as influential as Pavement. Where earlier records were a brilliant balance between curious non sequiturs, pointed scene analysis and dancing out the differences in ecstatic self-release, the impact of anything resembling the former two is totally lost amid the crudeness of Harrington’s campy cabaret.
I’ve made my point, and anyway, it’s common knowledge that Les Savy Fav has never really been about parsing triple entendres or extracting hidden sociopolitical meaning from oblique wordplay anyway. This is a band that thrived on Harrington’s manic energy; it was how he was saying what he was saying, whatever it was. Despite the above, this still holds and the music is uniformly good. The suggestive nature of Seth Jabour’s echoing guitar urgency encourages Harrington to set off in pursuit of his (apparently) underdeveloped sexual sinews, but that was always the case. Jabour and second guitarist Andrew Reuland maintain a nice balance between melodicism and unhinged atonality, per the norm. Bassist Syd Butler and drummer Harrison Haynes more than hold their own as the anchors for each of these songs. They quietly avoid attention-grabbing performances, but without them, the songs wouldn’t have hooks to hold on to.
You don’t notice them because Harrington is so pointed in his eye-rolling adolescence. As good as Les Savy Fav is as a unit, the band’s blessing is that they have a guitar player in Jabour who’s wildly creative and a frontman in Harrington who’s simply wild. The band’s curse is the same. When both of them aren’t in top form, it’s a lackluster affair. In that regard, I guess this is a victory lap. It doesn’t feel the same as Inches, though. “I can’t calm down / How can I calm down now?” Harrington yells on “Calm Down.” The answer after 11 songs is obviously not sex, violence or traveling. The answer is the same as what Root for Ruin should really be considered: therapy.