On “Down in the Valley,” the rousing stomp-along hit from The Head and the Heart’s debut full-length album, Jon Russell sang unabashedly about the places he hasn’t been; there was California and Oklahoma and the mythical Whiskey River. That self-titled collection, released in 2011 by Sub Pop, was a fantasy album, the songwriting an exercise in imagination that explored the idea that there is a better life out there somewhere, set to a stomping 4/4 beat and filled with three-part harmony. The band’s primary songwriters, Russell and Josiah Johnson, penned songs somewhat reliant on cliché and preoccupied with leaving behind the comforts of home to strike out into the world of possibility. It was naive, but it was honest to the young band’s place at that time and joyful in a way that made the songs easy to sing along with. And many did, to the tune of a quarter-million albums sold. The band has been touring ever since, and has checked California and Oklahoma off its list, along with just about every other U.S. state and multiple continents.
The circumstances surrounding the follow-up, Let’s Be Still, then, are very different, and the music reflects it. Where the debut was wide-eyed and innocent, this album is by turns weary and nostalgic. Where the largely acoustic instrumentation on its first effort was simplistic and somewhat clumsy in its enthusiasm, here it is nuanced and delivered with the grace of self-awareness. There are more tools at the band’s disposal on Let’s Be Still—in particular, electric guitars are a fresh and quietly charged presence—but there’s more to it than that. The stomping and shuffling beats are gone, replaced by tasteful fills from drummer Tyler Williams and loping, playful bass lines by Chris Zasche. Keyboard player Kenny Hensley, freed from mashing chords in time, is integral to shaping the songs’ dramatic arcs. Likewise, the group that once relied on three-part harmonies to telegraph emotion has largely abandoned such tricks this go-round, tending instead to rely on sophisticated composition and individual vocal performances by Johnson, Russell, and Charity Rose Thielen to carry that weight. The band does stumble in this new terrain, but overall it works, making this release a significant, and certainly not inevitable, step forward.
Russell in particular has grown. The album opens with two of his most powerful musical statements, the songwriter presenting a more complex worldview than before, one that commingles larger societal concerns with the personal frustrations about the life that awaited him beyond his doorstep. “I see a world,” he sings in his rough baritone on “Another Story.” “A world turning in on itself. Are we just like hungry wolves howling in the night? I don’t want no music tonight.”
The album takes a jarring, and somewhat off-putting, left turn from there, with Thielen’s playful and synth-laden “Summertime” and Johnson’s sentimental ballad “Josh McBride” recalling the more cloying aspects of the band’s early sound. Both might have found better placement on an interstitial EP. But the album rights itself with a collection of songs that display the strength achieved when the three singers weave their vocals and songwriting together. On “Cruel,” Johnson echoes Russell’s lead to chilling effect, while the title track benefits from a charming back-and-forth between Russell and Thielen. “My Friends” finds the bandmates in full-throated, glorious harmony. Overdone, that three-part harmony can get a bit tiresome, but delivered here, sparingly, at just the right moment, it reminds us of the band’s core appeal.
Just as it opened, the album closes with a series of individual performances, but on these latter tracks, each singer logs his or her strongest performances. On “Fear/Fire,” Johnson turns his inherent sentimentality into woeful wonder at the lost spark of love, while Thielen sings beautifully about death on the uncharacteristically dark “These Days are Numbered.”
Russell closes the album with “Gone,” and the band collectively swells and explodes with an emotional farewell worthy of the theaters it’s now filling. The subject is, once again, moving on. But the result is more complicated and charged. Russell and his bandmates seem to have a better idea of what they are leaving behind and a greater understanding of what awaits them out in the wider world.
Let’s Be Still is out now. The Head and the Heart will play the Deck the Hall Ball at KeyArena on Dec. 3. Tickets available here .