Like its 2006 predecessor, Espers’s third album comes marked only with a Roman numeral. Leaving the obvious Led Zeppelin references aside, the band’s choice to number their albums suggests that each one (with the exception of 2005’s covers EP The Weed Tree) functions as an item in a slowly-progressing series, in which each installment responds to the previous one. Whereas the sinister baroque sprawl of II brought the more understated darkness of the band’s self-titled debut to the fore, III seems to self-consciously respond to its predecessor’s excesses by moving towards more concise and melody-driven songs, emphasizing songcraft over consistent effect and mood.
As though to signal its divergence from II, III kicks off with the relatively straightforward and accessible British folk-rock of “I Can’t See Clear,” a track that, in a more pared-down arrangement, would not have been out of place on singer Meg Baird’s solo outing Dear Companion. Even here at its outset, however, the first signs of problems in III’s approach appear: what should be a simple and unpretentious folk song is quickly overloaded by gratuitous ornamentation, abruptly shifting gears into incongruous ominous electric guitar passages. “Caroline,” a duet between Baird and bandleader-producer Greg Weeks that follows shortly after, falls victim to the same problems, as one of the band’s loveliest melodies is besmirched by an annoying swarm of guitar drones and synths in the background. The lightness and charm characteristic of the band’s self-titled debut and of Baird’s Dear Companion seem to be swallowed up by overly elaborate arrangements that persist despite the band’s declared intention to make a less “claustrophobic” and more spacious album.
If anything, III exhibits a deep fear of space and breathing room. The band seems to feel compelled to fill every moment with sound, squeezing in distorted electric guitar leads (whose ubiquity quickly grows obnoxious) at every possible opportunity. Granted, one could make much the same criticism of II, but that album’s saving grace was its total devotion to a unified aesthetic and its uncompromisingly lugubrious sprawl. While III moves to leave such sprawling compositions behind, it neglects to lighten up the textures that accompanied them on the previous album. In short, the shift in songwriting strategy is not accompanied by one in arrangement and production. Other residues of II are detectable in Weeks’s few attempts to resurrect its minor-key drones and mystical imagery: “That Which Darkly Thrives” and “Meridian” feel like a mechanical and rather dull rehashing of the previous album’s aesthetic, while only the dense and intense “Colony” approaches its dark grandeur.
In opting for a more concise and song-based approach while largely retaining (if in somewhat attenuated form) the production aesthetic of its predecessor, III occupies an uncomfortable middle ground between II and Espers’s debut, and resultantly is a weaker album than either. It lacks the clear unifying vision that underlay the band’s earlier albums and allowed them to conjure up such compelling self-contained musical worlds.
That said, Espers are still an undeniably great band, and there is plenty of beautiful material here: Baird’s more relaxed contributions, “The Pearl,” and the jazzy, Pentangle-ish “Sightings” represent the band’s warmest and most upbeat material to date. Even these, however, come dangerously close feeling overproduced at times. Nonetheless, they perhaps signal — along with the somewhat less successful but similarly leisurely “Another Moon Song,” the most promising direction the group might take in the future.
While it would be overly harsh to write III off as a failure, the album clearly fails to find the equilibrium or comfortable midway point between Espers’s debut and II that it seems to be seeking, nor does it make a strong case that such equilibrium is even desirable. At best, it’s a strong set of tracks that ultimately lack the cumulative force of those of the band’s previous two full-lengths.