Isaac Slade, frontman and co-founder of The Fray, recently talked with Billboard magazine about the difficulty many groups have keeping their sound fresh. "For us, we've seen a lot of bands and artists get onto the scene, figure out something that works, and then just stick with it, I think out of a little bit of a fear," Slade said. "We've been doing this for 10 years, 11 years. And if we want to do this for another 10 years, we're going to have to keep progressing and keep growing and keep challenging ourselves."
And so this Denver alt-rock act's fourth effort, Helios, boasts a bit of '70s-esque disco-inspired funk (call it a Maroon 5 vibe) and doses of U2's seemingly never-ending musical influence. Mostly, though, The Fray still sounds like The Fray. Which is mostly a good thing.
On "Hold My Hand," a man recognizes and works to resist his tendency to flee difficulties—a habit that apparently shaped an ancestor's life as well: "I found a picture in my basement/My face a hundred years ago/But I don't wanna do like he did/So full of pride and all alone/Escape is in my blood/Fear is in my bones/But I don't wanna walk that road/Please help me."
The promise of purposeful permanence permeates "Wherever This Goes" ("From this moment till the day the curtains close/Don't matter at all, 'cause I will be forever yours/Wherever this goes"). And "Love Don't Die" similarly affirms lifelong faithfulness ("If I know one thing that's true/It's that I'm never leaving you/ … And even if they try/They'll never take my body from your side"). Another love song, "Shadow and a Dancer," focuses on long-haul faithfulness as well. "We know the summer thrill is gone," sings Slade (who's been married to his wife, Anna, since 2006), "But we've never been so in love."
"Give It Away" encourages listeners to share their love with the world ("Go on and light it up/And let 'em see you do your thing like you were born again/Free, love is free, love is free/Come on and give it away") and hints at the contagious influence of love in action ("Come and walk that walk/Across the seven seas/Come on and start this fire/Bigger than you and me").
Things aren't going so well for someone on "Keep on Wanting" ("Everything you want in broken pieces on the floor"). Still, Slade counsels against collapsing into despair ("Open your broken heart/And keep on wanting") and exhorts this straggling soul to keep on keepin' on ("There's two kinds of people: those who try and those who don't/And only time will tell which one you are") before concluding, "You will find the way to go/ … You may be stronger than you know." Likewise, "Our Last Days" insists that love is stronger than change and loss ("This love will stand now and always/These hearts will burn till our last days").
"Break Your Plans" begs a woman not to leave. "Same as You" empathizes with a loved one's fears even as it wisely acknowledges, "No one can take this from you/No, we can't carry this for you/But you can stand if you want to/Or fall if you want to/I do feel the same as you."
A woman described as "so fierce and full of that fire" commands a man's carnal attention on "Hurricane." "I wanna meet her," he says, then adds, "I wanna feel her, I wanna hold her body close to me/ … Lost in the riot, peace and quiet, and the one I lust." Sensual lines show up in "Shadow and a Dancer" too ("Hello, love/Remember that touch/That skin-on-skin rush/Sweeping up the both of us"). "Same as You" hints at intimacy with, "Lying here, swear you can feel me/Reach your hand and try to touch this skin/But it's just you breathing/ … Naked in the moonlight/The cool water never quite touches your soul" (though the balance of the song is about facing fears together, not sexual intimacy).
"Hold My Hand" ropes in an s-word to make its otherwise positive point about the importance of perseverance ("This is the burden I carry/And it goes back a hundred years/But all the s‑‑‑ I did/I am done with it").
"Closer to Me" tells something like a Bonnie and Clyde story: A criminal knows he's in trouble ("I'm smoking cigarettes in the Laundromat/ … I got a suitcase full of dirty cash/ … They've got a thousand bucks riding on my head"), but nevertheless asks a woman to join him on the lam ("I gotta know right now, baby, are you in?/ … Won't you come a little bit closer to me?").
In 2012 I characterized The Fray's third album, Scars & Stories, as a glass half-full/half-empty kind of affair. "I found myself sometimes wishing the watermark would inch up to three-quarters full," I wrote, "instead of always lingering at the half-way mark."
I finally got my wish. Helios is indeed closer to that three-quarters mark, proving to be the most emotionally upbeat album of any in The Fray's catalog. The band's steady, frequent emphasis on staying faithful to those we love and together working through our problems shines like an optimistic ray of sunshine through the melancholy fog. Arguably for the first time on a Fray album, it doesn't feel like ambiguity and hope are merely equals. Instead, it feels like hope finally has the upper hand.
Of course I still have to conclude with that remaining one-quarter: There are certainly still lyrics here that need to be carefully navigated (or avoided altogether). Most problematic are lustful fantasies on "Hurricane" and that irritating s-word on "Hold My Hand."