He’s got scars and insight and demons he’s not afraid to mine for lyrics, which are emotionally honest and often scratched raw.
Blue October and I had a torrid affair. Our romance began with the release of 2000’s Consent to Treatment and lasted, in large part, through 2011’s Any Man in America. I couldn’t begin to count how many times I’ve seen them live (although I will never forget my very first time: at their hometown Austin Music Hall during SXSW), nor how many times I’ve interviewed or spoken with Justin and the boys. When PLAYBACK:stl was still in its print phrase, we featured the band on our cover.
And then we drifted apart. Other bands vied for my attention, and my affection for Blue October waned. 2013’s Sway—their seventh full-length release—completely passed me by. And this one might have, too, had it not been for the gorgeous, haunting, and utterly enthralling video for the title track and first single. Now, in addition to streaming Home through my speakers, I’ve also gone back to the catalog, pulled up some songs I haven’t heard in a while.
Anyone who’s kept up with the band over the years knows Blue October has evolved as singer-songwriter-frontman Justin Furstenfeld has grown. Whereas The Answers, Consent to Treatment, and History for Sale showcased a louder, harder band, 2006’s Foiled introduced a songwriter who had found peace, happiness, acceptance. And with these positive attributes came a lighter, pop-friendlier sound. Diehard fans need not have worried, of course, as the requisite hard-hitting rockers still appeared on the albums. But the new sound cemented Furstenfeld as a brilliant, talented, and prolific songwriter. Was there nothing this man couldn’t create?
Returning to the band now, listening to their brand-new album, I’d have to say that, truly, nothing’s off limits. He’s got one of the most versatile voices in rock music today. He’s got scars and insight and demons he’s not afraid to mine for lyrics, which are emotionally honest and often scratched raw. He holds fans in awe as they sing, sway, and thrash along to the songs.
Perhaps even more impressive is that the band’s core lineup has remained fairly steady since its debut in 1998. The frontman is flanked by his brother, drummer Jeremy Furstenfeld, violinist Ryan Delahoussaye, and, more often than not, bassist Matt Noveskey. And while Justin deserves many accolades for fronting and leading this group with his words, voice, and inspiration, the songs wouldn’t be songs without these friends and collaborators; their contributions are also essential.
Like every album since 2006, Home has its share of melodic pop. Opening track “Coal Makes Diamonds” is an ’80s flashback that feels fresh, not dated; with its slow-burning bass and gentle falsetto, “Driver” has more of an indie-rock vibe to it; and “Heart Go Bang”—well, with a name like that, you’d probably think it would be a love song, and you’d be right. “Home” is, as I’ve mentioned, beautiful and mesmerizing. It’s a gentle pop song, an ode to family, a celebration of the people we’re lucky enough to call our home.
The piano-driven “We Know Where You Go” is equally haunting and fragile, while the sunshiny “The Lucky One”—beginning, as numerous other Blue October songs have, with a recorded snippet, this one of Furstenfeld’s young son—keeps the melody and mood light. “Break Ground” is a shimmering slow burner, standing out here because of the unique vocal presentation: careful, clipped, echoing.
And then we have “Leave It in the Dressing Room,” kicking off with a promoter or manager telling Furstenfeld bought concert tickets to see him, not his moods or problems. And while it’s a strong, addictive song, it’s also darker, even sinister. If Home were an LP and not a digital stream of songs, I imagine “Dressing Room” would be the start of Side B (never mind the fact that it comes three-fourths of the way through the record). This is where the mood shifts, where the louder, more aggressive Blue October shoves mellow Justin to the side and plants itself front and center with a cocky swagger.
Not that these three rock songs aren’t still palatable to the modern pop listener, because they are: just don’t expect to be showered with flowers and hearts. We get two more insinuating songs in “Houston Heights” and “Time Changes Everything,” before the instrumental “The Still” leads us back home.
Truly, there’s not a bad song here—and for a band on its eighth release, that’s fairly extraordinary. But then, Furstenfeld is no ordinary musician. It’s nice to see marriage and fatherhood haven’t taken away the shine, instead polishing his craft and pushing him to continually expand his repertoire. In the early days, we shared his pain; now he’s inviting us into his home to share his serenity. | Laura Hamlett