Holly Laessig and Jess Wolfe built themselves a home on their band Lucius’ first album, 2013’s “Wildewoman.” The framework was their two voices melded together. The walls were constructed with breezy 60s pop, and the rooms were filled with messages of empowerment and relentless optimism. “She’ll only be bound by the things she chooses,” the duo cheerily sang on the title track, and the group’s bounds seemed perfectly drawn.
But somewhere along the way the home became suffocating. They had built themselves a little box on the hillside and now found themselves trapped in an immaculate time capsule, a copy of “This Old House”covered in plastic wrap. Their new album, “Good Grief,” is an attempt to bust out: from their picturesque nostalgic sound, their unflappable outward fierceness, their conventional beauty. And that there are some misfires and uncertain steps forward makes the album all the more captivating. It’s an oversized album born out of claustrophobia and anxiety; a talented group of musicians venturing outside and grasping for what exactly they mean to be.
The group’s calling card—the Laessig-Wolfe vocal connection—remains superb. It’s hard enough to go from zero to 100 by yourself; to do it in unison with another singer is nearly impossible. But the pair’s vocal lines swing from whisper to glass-shattering belt in a matter of seconds, at all times both expressive and utterly composed. The album’s first single, “Born Again Teen,” runs the gamut: the pair ventures far into its upper register to achieve brassiness without being shrill, and effectively toggles between cutesy and ferocious.
That used to be enough. The band’s live showstopper, appropriately titled “Go Home,” relied on the two women’s enormous vocal range and basically nothing else. But sheer virtuosity can get tiring for both the audience and performer. “Good Grief” shows Lucius fighting off stagnancy by jumping into different musical eras, filling their tracks to the brim with instruments, ramping up arrangements. This is a carefully crafted studio album that borders on being micro-managed. Wolfe and Laessig’s two voices aren’t enough: there are dozens of backing vocal tracks. Each song has verses on choruses on bridges on instrumental jams. Each verse has a new instrumental part.
The maximalism is most directly addressed on “What We Have (to Change),” which depicts a dead-end relationship, whether it be romantic or musical. “I’ll climb any tower, take any grand notion, just find us emotion to spill into,” they sing desperately as the track builds steadily using horns, ghostly background “oohs,” jangly guitars, wobbly synthesizers, harried drum fills, and a 7/4 breakdown. By reaching for everything, the band doesn’t quite arrive anywhere except existential crisis; still, the pieces spill out with urgent vitality.
The band grasps not only upward musically but inward emotionally, exploring frailties and insecurities they had kept tight to the chest on “Wildewoman.” The centerpiece of the album is “Almost Makes Me Wish For Rain,” an unsettled (and unsettling) block of four plus minutes. It sounds first like easygoing synthpop, but the groove never really locks in. Around the edges of the Wham! snare bops peek signs of trouble: gospel swells, fragile violins, fragments of reverb. The singers are too mousy, and then they’re overbearing. The drums are too peppy, then they’re too thudding. And the same anxious, descending, dissonant gesture that Grimes used on “Flesh Without Blood” shows up in the string section here. Meanwhile, Wolfe and Laessig confess to creating their own rain clouds: “Searching for the empty half when something’s filled up.” It all amounts to an overwhelming sense of dread. It makes you want to listen to the song again, because you become worried you missed something the last time.
As the neuroses pile up on songs like “My Heart Got Caught on Your Sleeve” and “Gone Insane,” you wonder what happened between this album and the last. Lucius did their journey backwards: they showed up fully formed and confident, worked with legends like Jeff Tweedy and David Byrne, and then slipped into a shifting state of despair. Maybe they realized that resolution and resoluteness aren’t nearly as interesting as uncertainty. Or, maybe “it’s just growing pains,” as they sing on the album’s closer “Dusty Trails.” “Good Grief” isn’t as pristine as “Wildewoman,” but I’ll take motion and effort over safe perfection every time.