Spun: Sam Roberts

Sam Roberts’ website describes his sophomore album, Chemical City, as “less polished and yet, paradoxically, more ambitious” than his debut, We Were Born in a Flame. Artists’ websites aren’t generally the most objective guide to their music. Upon listening to the album, however, it becomes clear that whoever came up with this plug was on the mark. It was truly a colossal feat for Roberts to think he could create an album containing songs highly similar, but largely inferior to those from We Were Born in a Flame, but he pulled it off.

Unfortunately, the similarities between the two albums are pretty easy to spot, as are Chemical City’s deficiencies. Largely to its detriment, it’s louder than his first album but also more pretentious. The tracks that reference his “Chemical City”–revealed to be a decaying, supposedly fictitious burg presided over by a corrupt mayor–come across as silly. The ones more firmly grounded in reality, meanwhile, are equally lacking in credibility. Roberts deserves some credit for taking on weightier matters than most of his contemporaries are willing to tackle, adopting the persona of an ailing coal miner on “With a Bullet” and the role of “An American Draft Dodger In Thunder Bay,” but he’s not terribly convincing as either. Stan Rogers he ain’t.

As was the case with We Were Born in a Flame, Chemical City’s lyrically best tracks are those that deal with the more universal themes of unrequited love and unfulfilled potential. These are also the best songs from a musical perspective, slower and more sparsely accompanied than the others, but more effective for it. But they’re in the minority, and they stick out as a result; they’re a reminder of what Roberts can be, rather than an indicator of his downward spiral.

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