Listening to The Books, for me, is a peculiar experience. Whenever I complete one cycle of one of their albums, I feel strangely smarter. It’s not like I’m learning math or studying European history. But The Books offer a bizarre sort of stimulation that power chords simply don’t provide. I attribute it to the acoustic/electronic duo’s advanced approach to songwriting and recording. By merely inventing a new genre unto itself, The Books prove themselves to be smarter than your average musician. With Thought for Food and The Lemon of Pink, The Books showed us how to play folk music on a sampler or downtempo electronica on a violin. And on Lost and Safe, they show us how to make a long-term career out of doing so.
There’s nothing remarkably different about Lost and Safe. In essence, it’s a continuation of their two previous albums, but executed with more subtlety. And while more subtlety seems impossible when it comes to a band like Books, it certainly applies in the case of Lost and Safe. Just to be clear, though, this isn’t a quieter album or a more difficult album. Rather, it’s an album that, when given the right attention, reveals countless intricate details, interesting textures and stunning layers of sound. Opener ” A Little Longing Goes Away” may convince the listener that he’s in for a more ambient Books, this time around. But the duo makes a dramatic shift on the following track, “Be Good To Them Always,” a cut-and-paste IDM track heavy on the violin and bordering on danceable. Yet it never crosses that border, as the group continually switches syncopation and rhythm.
Interestingly enough, Books seem to be gradually moving in a more accessible direction, adding more vocals to each record and structuring their songs in such a way as to sound more like a conventional pop band than before, relatively speaking. It’s not like you would expect Books to play three power chords and sing heartfelt love songs. Take a song like “Smells Like Content,” which goes from a series of clicking sounds to a pretty waltz, with the duo singing lines like “Our heads are approaching a density reminiscent of the infinite connectivity of the center of the sun.” Uh…sure. Whatever you say.
Another interesting difference between this album and previous Books releases is a more pronounced presence of percussion samples. “An Animated Description of Mr. Maps” is heavy on beats, albeit ones made most likely by everyday objects. Nonetheless, it’s one of the loudest tracks on the record because of them. “None But Shining Hours” has a repetitive, percussive melody that makes it almost sound Krautrock. And “An Owl With Knees” builds up into a quirky sample fest with notes popping up and down like a Wack-a-Mole game.
The album closes with the subdued, meditative “Twelve Fold Chain,” soothing the listener after an invigorating, if somewhat exhausting listen. While some songs on Lost and Safe sound more accessible than old Books tracks, others sound even more left field. And that’s just the way I imagine this duo prefers things. You can never anticipate what Books will try next. You can only hope to keep up with them while they do it. Thanks to The Books, music has gotten smart again.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.