Is the glass half full or half empty? If you’re Isaac Slade, lead singer for The Fray, the answer is yes. And most of the 12 tracks on the band’s third album leave you feeling either depressed or optimistic or both, depending on which thoughts you zero in on. Slade and Co. slog through all manner of moody, melancholy and heartbroken moments in songs that teeter on the brink of existential despair. But just when you think they’re about to plunge off the precipice into that dark pit, they frequently scramble back from the edge and declare that all is not lost. Probably.
Echoing Psalm 46:10, “Be Still” can also be heard as a man’s promise to his beloved: “Be still and know that I’m with you/Be still and know that I am here/ … When darkness comes upon you/And covers you with fear and shame/Be still and know that I’m with you/And I will say your name/ … If no one is standing beside you/Be still and know that I am.”
On “Heartbeat,” Slade is confident of his ability to resuscitate a struggling friend (“I’m feeling your heartbeat/You’re coming around”), even as he acknowledges her pain-filled past (“I know the memory is rushing into your mind, baby/I want to kiss your scars tonight”). “Munich” celebrates a couple’s triumph over conflict. “Rainy Zurich” romanticizes getting caught in a downpour and the joy of two people finding each other (“You are what I never knew I needed”). The upbeat “48 to Go” imagines life as a circuitous, adventurous road trip.
“The Fighter” tells of a boxer who strives to overcome two opponents: The one in the ring and the one in his heart that’s trying to keep him from committing fully to the woman who loves him. It’s a melancholy story with a positive twist on the ending: “Maybe we were meant to be lonely/Maybe we were meant to be on our own/Loneliness has always been with me/But maybe we don’t have to be all alone.” Then, “1961” tells the story of three feuding brothers. Despite their intense discord (“We’re broken, we’re battered/We’re torn up and we’re shattered/We turned back on each other/The moment that it mattered”), eventual reconciliation still seems probable. And deep family discord is also the subject of “I Can Barely Say,” in which a prodigal son of sorts longs to come home.
“The Wind” compares a man’s doubts to being lost at sea and waiting for the breeze to push him toward his love, who’s waiting onshore: “Oh my God, I think I’m lost at sea/ … I don’t know where I am/Can you tell me/Will I break or will I bend?”
“Turn Me On” focuses on sex. “And I don’t know what it is about you/The way you’re moving/You turn me on/I want to touch you till we’re burning/ … I see you rising and you’re falling/ … You’re a burning cabaret/I want to feel you, love/I want to feel the way you’re moving.” (Slade wed in 2006, but there’s no obvious mention of marriage in this song.)
“Here We Are,” which explores a troubled romantic relationship, suggests that a man is still sleeping with his lover (“Here we are/Will you lay your body down/Here we are/Two lovers in the dark”) despite his deep doubts about whether they should be together (“Who’s it going to be, ’cause I’m divided/Who you going to see? Haven’t decided”).
Sensuality creeps into “Rainy Zurich” when lyrics suggest a couple drenched by rain eventually remove their wet clothes together.
Like U2 and Coldplay, The Fray sets its lyrical sights high. It’s clear that the band strives to transcend mere pop music, as Slade and his mates wade into life’s profound paradoxes and testify to the tension that inevitably exists there. It’s an earnest, honest approach that connects on quite a few levels.
My complaints? A handful of sensual/sexual references. And this: I found myself sometimes wishing the watermark would inch up to three-quarters full instead of always lingering at the half-way mark.
My praise? The Fray says things that are oftentimes missing from furrowed-brow alt-rock. While plumbing the depths of melancholy introspection, these guys (mostly) conclude that even though life is hard, it’s still good. Even though love can be complicated, it’s worth the effort. Rarely does the band emphasize one of these truths—negative or positive—without soon nodding to the other.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews.