These United States - "First Sight" (A Picture of the Three of Us at the Gate to the Garden of Eden)
“I feel for Jonah: I too am a lonely butcher trying to carve a little piece out of this whale of a great big future.” That’s not Jesse Elliott at his best, but it’s as good a place as any to start picking apart the fanciful mess that is A Picture of the Three of Us at the Gate to the Garden of Eden. It comes in the middle of a pretty, earthy song called “So High So Low So Wide So Long,” which is probably the best on the album and which is, like all the others, a diffuse meditation on a romantically wayward lifestyle that may or may not exist. It’s a ridiculously overcooked metaphor, but the idea behind it isn’t bad. There’s honesty to it, a certain quaint accuracy, too. There’s nothing wrong with it that an editor, or a couple passes through the Elements of Style, couldn’t fix.
But the whole album is this way: agreeably mellow songs that bear an outlandishly big figurative weight. Elliott has insightful things to say, but can’t keep his vocabulary in his pants long enough to get them across intact. Picture is an album’s worth of universal feelings spoiled by his compulsion to present them as sordid or literary, to make them clever or allusive or needlessly alliterative (see “Slow Crows Over,” an extended metaphor about Van Gogh and possibly Pontius Pilate). He wants the idea of folk-song simplicity as practiced by Dylan or Springsteen, but he’s irreconcilably drawn to the loquacious impressionism of Ben Gibbard or Yoni Wolf of Why? (whose recent Alopecia is, in a way, everything this album should be). It’s not just that the resulting songs feel confused; it’s that they feel disingenuous.
Apart from Elliott, These United States consists of instrumentalist/producer David Strackany (who also goes by Paleo) and a loose cast of visitors on tabla, horns, and backing vocals. These others turn in some busy, admirably shapeshifting backdrops that swell and retreat in time to Elliott’s musings, but they remain helpless to cut through to the marrow of the lyrics – the only thing they truly share is a lack of economy. Only during the album’s folksier rambles, like “Burn This Bridge” and “The Business,” do they seem to agree on a premise; Elliott and his kittenish croon, just slightly less thick than Matt Ward’s, slow down and at last err on the side of plain-spoken charm (“I got a tie barely matching my suit / but at the end of the day I’m coming over to see you”).
The rest of the time, even on the pleasantly burbling first single “First Sight,” the album suffers from a huge imbalance between the gentle folk songs you hear and the glibly manic poems they were meant to be. When Elliott tries to have it both ways, his sentiment rings false and his inventiveness reads as preciousness, the same kind of marketable soul that makes people hate Zach Braff.