Album Review: La Dispute - 'Panorama'

18 March 2019 | 1:52 pm | Staff Writer
Originally Appeared In

Wildlife + Rooms of the House = Panorama.

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When La Dispute released their sophomore album, 2011's 'Wildlife', the cut 'King Park' impacted the scene unlike any other song had at that time. La Dispute painted a portrait of 21st century suburban tragedy, drawing from the very real events of a man contemplating suicide after accidentally shooting an innocent child in the background of a gang war. In every record since, including 2014’s 'Rooms of the House' and now 2019’s 'Panorama' - their first album in five years - the band grapples with how to cope in a world as dark as 'Wildlife' so effectively described it.

Conceptually, 'Panorama' sees vocalist Jordan Dreyer and his partner driving along a stretch of Michigan highway scattered with memories; from an old home to a new one. On the eerie and minimal atmospheric number, 'Fulton Street I', the pair are confronted with the goriest sides of their country introduced a couple of albums ago, finding a "body at the rest stop", and "a jawbone and teeth". It prompts Dreyer to ponder, much like he did in 'Wildlife', if he'll ever have to "put flowers by the street" for someone that he loves; if he'll ever have to mourn like these people have sadly had to. Yet he shifts focus onto his partner, their relationship together and comforting her instead, just to try and get through it all. That image frames the entire record as Dreyer demonstrates the only way to find light in the darkness is to deal with your feelings and the emotions of those around you; how the two inter-lock. "I felt afraid and ashamed that I felt anything at all", he proclaims on 'Anxiety Panorama', realising that looking inward at your reaction to the world's wickedness is only half the battle.

Amid Dreyer's quintessential soft-to-loud vocal dynamics, the dirtier guitars that accompany them, and interesting new sonics explored in straying from their post-hardcore roots, is the most blunt example of how this album explores death: 'Rhodonite and Grief". That a person can give you sanctuary from what you are dealing with is explored on the track, where the narrator tries to comfort their significant other with "rhodonite for stress, promethazine for sleep, a rabbit toy for kids" and offering his "deep condolences". Accented by rising trumpets, an uncharacteristic yet surprising new dalliance for the band, it's still unsure whether those gifts work in providing relief in suffering. Again, trying to help is half of the larger fight here.

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On 'There You Are (Hiding Place)', the record's big highlight for me, it's confirmed that while gifting someone crystals and drugs might not take away their grief, merely having someone to help you with what you're going through is enough. Dreyer poetically describes his relationship as creating "another" him inside of his partner's eyes, a better version of himself that isn't as scared that it would be "blinded by the lightness of a ghost" only he knows. The idea that our best form of strength is born in the moments where we see the worst fear in the eyes of those we love; a noble sentiment from a man whose musical career is filled with thoughtful and intriguing metaphors and beliefs.

Ultimately, the focus on the coupling between Dreyer and his partner here represents a way to retreat from the world's endless sea of tragedies. In this way, 'Panorama' extends upon the relationship themes of 'Rooms of the House' as a way to deal with the modern world's cruel realities. As a panorama shot is defined, you get to see everything, all at once, with no filter. The journey which led Dreyer to realise this comes to a beautiful end destination on album closer, 'You Ascendant', which in seven minutes sees him reach a form of inner peace. After contemplating how he would die, and wondering if he could choose what happens after, he arrives at the conclusion that as long as while you live, and you're "everything" that someone needs, then it doesn't matter.

In the sense that 'Panorama' ties up the loose ends of the themes explored on 'Rooms of the House' and 'Wildlife', this record is quite meaningful. Having said that though, it does feel at times derivative in my eyes, drawing from albums that have already been made. It also feels almost negligent that La Dispute don't stray outside of the smaller perspectives of Dreyer and his partner too. Especially as a band that in the past has shown a real concern for social causes not only on 'Wildlife', but in their efforts for the Flint Michigan Water Crisis and their charity towards mental health groups. Yes, the band still do such work and strive for such awareness outside of their actual music, I only yearned for such matters to be found deeper within the fibres and sounds of this record.

Given everything that's happening in the world right now - the racism, the political regimes, the riots, the hate crimes - I find it a little off-putting that apart from throwaway references to gore, La Dispute are no longer using their musical products to offer meaningful insights on their own world outside the experiences of two people driving along a highway, dealing with their own grief. Introspection is great and often welcomed, but it has little impact to me here, unfortunately. Perhaps what I was personally anticipating from the band was far too specific in the broader scope - and I can own that bias - but I was really excited on 'Panorama' to hear about how La Dispute viewed with the world that currently we live in. Yet I've been somewhat disappointed to see that they seemingly hadn't been too affected by the crisis of 2018 and 2019, and were still set in the same universe as previous albums. This time just with added introspection.

As with every other La Dispute album, the lyricism and stories weaved here have far more importance than the actual sounds and songs; the element that doesn't make Dreyer's vocal elevations feel formulaic is how deeply emotional and personal said stories are. While 'Panorama' is a clever and moody highway journey about two people coping with grief, it feels very much like a record that draws more from the tales of 'Rooms of the House' and 'Wildlife' rather than creating something new and groundbreaking for the band. Maybe my expectations have been raised too high by this band's past history, and maybe I can't accept this for what it is, but it does feel like La Dispute are more capable of opening themselves up to something bigger than what's been offered here.

1. Rose Quartz

2. Fulton Street I

3. Fulton Street II

4. Rhodonite and Grief

5. Anxiety Panorama

6. In Northern Michigan

7. View From Our Bedroom Window

8. Footsteps at the Pond

9. There You Are (Hiding Place)

10. You Ascendant

'Panorama' is out March 22nd, 2019. Stream the album in full whilst playing the band's interactive story-telling game, Pilgrimage, here.