The Head and the Heart Album Review: Signs of Light

When asked about my music taste and what bands I like the best, Seattle-based The Head and the Heart always seems to make the top of the list. They personify that relaxed, soothing, but also melodically intricate and beautiful sound that accompanies work, driving, napping, walking, hiking, crying, sitting, or being. I laud their use of harmonies that flow with lovely guitar melodies, mixing smoothly together to flow like molasses. Thick, strong, and strengthening. “Rivers and Roads” essentially acted as my anthem when I studied abroad; I love the simple beauty and intensity, building into harmonies that ebb and flow.

I expected to be similarly impressed by their new album, Signs of Light, as recent albums had favorites such as “Another Story” and “Shake” (from Let’s Be Still) but was ultimately disappointed. Instead of relying on the strength of their voices, simple musical arrangements, and strong lyrics, this new album features more pop-based tracks that are reminiscent of their older, simpler songs, but with too much embellishment. I remember hearing the first single and wondering whether it was actually The Head and the Heart because it was so different. I love hearing favorite bands release new songs and flourish, expanding their repertoire, but I feel discombobulated if I don’t believe it’s still their music. What works for The Head and the Heart in their best songs is a blend of purposeful voices and instrumentation which are balanced; most of the songs in the new album seemed focused on the instrumentation, forsaking the slow chords that worked so well in the past with vocals merely as accompaniment.

Songs like “Library Magic” and “Your Mother’s Eyes” retain some of that simple serenity and loveliness that keeps The Head and the Heart on my playlists year-round. The songs have vocals that are more reminiscent of their early work making them recognizable, and have sweeping instrumentation that is filling and completing. The title song “Signs of Light” begins with a slow ballad accompanied by piano, its lyrics deeply emotional: “I’ll wait by your bed for signs of light / They say that you’re gone / But I know
you’re alright.”

The song blends into a building cascade of guitars and gently pulsing drumbeats, all undercut by the piano that creates the foundation for the track. Most of the songs are forgettable, beats that could slide by in a coffee shop without notice. Though they create a relatively pleasant ambience, the songs have entered into a more contemporary genre that dilutes what made the band’s earlier music special. In the vein of Ingrid Michaelson, the original wholesome songs that showcased the singer’s talents without burying them have changed into tracks more interested in exploring new
mediums of pop.

The songs themselves aren’t objectively bad; I just wouldn’t have expected them to be The Head and the Heart. With the influx of indie-folk bands vying for the coveted and limited spotlight, there’s been a surge in bands searching for more updated forms of music, crossing genres and tweaking their “traditional” identity. Music must evolve for the sake of sustained interest and based on changing times, but in this case the evolution loses what I loved about the first few albums. I’d rather hear more of the unique simplicity that now takes a backseat to a more pop-forward identity.

Ultimately, the songs can exist as fine tracks to study to, walk to, listen to without thinking, but I wouldn’t necessarily play them on purpose for my own enjoyment. “Rivers and Roads” and other gorgeous melodies from their first album, The Head and the Heart, still hold that place of privilege.

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