If you need a textbook example of how a band can take a successful signature sound and run it into the ground, Evanescence’s third album is here to provide a case study in repetitive stress for your Ruts 101 class.
Even the album’s title, “Evanescence,” and its corporate-logo cover testify to how many chances the once-promising group is willing to take after five years away, which is to say, zilch.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way, since auteur Amy Lee kept promising how different the third album would be. Three years ago, she told the press she was writing Celtic-flavored songs. As recently as early 2010, the band was in the studio with producer Steve Lillywhite, working on an electronics-heavy project Lee swore would reflect her interest in hip, programming-driven bands like MGMT.
But, apparently, she had some sense knocked into her about that whole “adventurous” thing. The plug was pulled on those Lillywhite sessions and Lee re-started the album from scratch with new producer Nick Raskulinecz (Foo Fighters), now aiming to adhere as close to previously useful formulas as humanly possible. The resulting collection could just as easily -- and blandly -- be titled “The Open Door II” or “Fallen III.”
Evanescence became an instant breakout in 2003 by brilliantly answering the theretofore unasked musical question: What would it sound like if Sarah McLachlan fronted Black Sabbath? As a solo belter, she might have sounded too pretty for her own good, and the band members' metallic crunch might have been a bore, unaided ... but together, they were the peanut butter cup of rock & roll.
But eight years and the departure of all the other original band members later, Lee’s gothic angst feels like a teenaged shtick the talented frontwoman is too nervous to give up. Nearly every song will begin with the same brand of muted-Metallica guitar chugging and thunderous drums, and every anxious verse of Lee's will resolve in the same kind of anthemic, depressively soaring minor-key chorus.
Perhaps an unfortunate template was established way back when the group’s first hit, “Bring Me to Life,” got picked up for the “Daredevil” soundtrack, because virtually every interchangeable tune on the new album also sounds designed to play over the end credits of an action blockbuster that takes itself too seriously.
Lee got married in 2007, so you might expect the slightest hint of tranquility to have set in since the last album -- yet the love apocalypse remains at hand, as ever. “I will never find a way to heal my soul, and I will wander ‘til the end of time, torn away from you,” she wails in the bluntly titled “My Heart Is Broken.”
The best track, “Never Go Back,” benefits from some odd and genuinely surprising chord changes. Even there, the melodrama borders on self-parody, with Lee breathlessly and deathlessly declaring, “I die every time I close my eyes—you’re always there.” In another stratospherically gloomy number, “End of the Dream,” she brushes off a tombstone while looking into the soul of “a bird closing her eyes one last time … I wonder if she dreamed like me.” “The Other Side” imagines making up with an estranged lover beyond the grave.
Guess she’s not overly concerned about shedding that whole goth image.
Only in the closing “Swimming Home” do we get a tantalizing glimpse of what that abandoned album with Lillywhite might’ve sounded like. Over a subdued electronic pulse, Lee sings plaintively about being in love but being called away to the sky to rejoin “my kind.” Yes, it sounds tailor-made for a movie about an alien who makes the mistake of falling in love with a human, but surely that’s how some folks – rock stars or otherwise – really feel in their relationships.
The lyrics aren’t all as hoary as the ones cited above. When she’s not pondering the wuthering heights of doom, Lee does come up with a few interestingly brutal couplets about being a liar and loser in a relationship. Maybe Lee is suffering through one of the most tumultuous marriages this side of “Virginia Woolf,” or perhaps she’s still drawing emotional fuel from her feud with the disgruntled former band members who reassembled as We Are the Fallen.
Or maybe she’s just writing to order, figuring Evanescence fans expect nothing less than complete torment. If so, it’s a shame someone who still has the potential to be one of our great contemporary female rock stars has buried her light under the bushel of branding.
Meanwhile, if you want to hear the best Evanescence song of the decade, go pick up Taylor Swift’s “Haunted,” an Amy Lee homage that outdoes Amy Lee without repeating itself for 47 minutes.