Since they put out their last record, 2011’s In the Pit of the Stomach, We Were Promised Jetpacks have added a new member: Stuart McGachan on guitars, keys, and backup vocals. As far back as the Scottish rockers’ stop at Chicago’s Lincoln Hall last March, McGachan had already joined the band and added an animalistic urgency to their high-intensity material. While they previewed six new songs from what was then an untitled new LP, it remained to be seen how McGachan would affect their creative output over the course of a whole record. With Unravelling, it’s clear that this wasn’t some token, barely discernible change in the lineup; McGachan is the fulcrum that helped We Were Promised Jetpacks leverage the most balanced, most experimental, and best all-around LP in their discography.
On their first two albums, the Scots stuck largely to a successful formula of loose guitar riffs building up to loud, cathartic releases locked in by lead vocalist Adam Thompson’s earnest lyrics: post-rock tinged with shades of punk and emo. Unravelling features a few of these classic We Were Promised Jetpacks tracks, but mixes things up for a much more varied sound. Early highlight “Peaks and Troughs” starts with a low-key riff and Thompson’s subdued croon before the band unleash the wall-of-sound guitars. Just when you think they’ll lead into one of those powerful, emotional moments, the big guitars pivot and cut back to the original, restrained riff, paired again with Thompson’s quiet vocals.
Tonally, the pianos are key to giving the tracks a sense of balance. In almost every song (with the exception of the ominous “Night Terror” and “Disconnecting”), McGachan’s keys lend a fleeting glimmer of optimism to an otherwise dark mood. The album follows a narrative (or at least emotional) arc; the first three-quarters represent the “unravelling,” which refers to problems like sobriety (“Peaks and Troughs”), loneliness (“I Keep It Composed”), and forgiveness (“Peace Sign”). But the last few songs make sure that the album doesn’t cast a pall of total doom and gloom. The instrumental penultimate track, “Peace of Mind”, shows hope shining through like the dawn of a new day, almost U2-like in its grandness. Triumphant strings, crashing cymbals, and upbeat keys all converge to create a sense of genuine warmth.
Not every experiment completely pays off; the discordant slow burner “Disconnecting” features Thompson scream-talking in a near falsetto. But We Were Promised Jetpacks have taken risks and made a challenging record. It’d be easy for them to rest on their laurels and stick to what they know they do well. Unravelling deals with lives falling apart, but with the addition of McGachan, We Were Promised Jetpacks come together as a cohesive force.
Essential Tracks: “Safety in Numbers”, “Peaks and Troughs”, and “Peace of Mind”