Growing up is hard to do. It seems that the older one gets, the more necessary and nebulous a sense of purpose becomes, at once essential and hard to define. As moral philosopher Susan Neiman argues, “Growing up is not about when you get a driver’s license or when you can legally drink or even when you get married or have your first child—or even when your parents die.” Rather than the pursuit of individual milestones, growing up is the ceaseless, life-long process of self-determination, of “being able to do this quite difficult balancing act between the ‘is’ and ‘ought.’”
Between The Richness, the sophomore LP from Massachusetts quintet Fiddlehead, straddles the existential gulf from ‘is’ to ‘ought’ with confident self-assurance. As opening track “Grief Motif” makes clear, themes of time, stasis, and disintegration loom large over the record, as frontman Pat Flynn utters the earnest refrain of “fall apart” before pairing it with “have your heart”—a lyrical nod to a featured sample from E.E. Cumming’s famed 1952 poem, “[i carry your heart with me(i carry it in].”
On Springtime & Blind, the band’s 2018 debut, Flynn wrestled with the death of his father, using the band’s yearning synthesis of post-hardcore, post-punk, and classic ‘80s emo as a form of indie-rock therapy. In contrast, by putting Flynn’s own journey and worldview under the microscope this time around, Between The Richness feels more insular and interrogatory. Now older and wiser, the former Have Heart frontman lays his inner anxieties bare on their new album, reflecting on his fervent youth, the unknowns of adulthood, and the seismic shift in perspective that comes with fatherhood.
The upbeat verses of “The Years” are emphatic with catchy declarations towards progress (“Get out, Go on”; “Move it, Move on”), as Flynn juxtaposes “Old Death’s dulling sting” with the beauty of creation and “new life blooming.” “Eternal You” puts the “raging tides” of life front and centre, name-dropping At The Drive-In and spinning up a dizzying chorus that would feel right at home on Sparta’s Wiretap Scars: “Time’s when I’m sinking are/ Time’s when I believe in/ Time’s I can turn to you.”
Lead single “Million Times” functions as a yearning mid-tempo rocker, propelled by wistful nostalgia for forlorn adolescent love. Over drummer Shaun Costa’s plaintive groove, former Basement guitarist Alex Henery and Alex Dow churn through plaintive chord progressions, as Flynn weighs up risk and reward, pondering the bitter regrets of time best served by distance and reflection: “What’s love if not a war for peace that never ends?/ The casualty is if we end up just as friends alone and low at home, alone.”
“Loverman” and “Get Your Mind Right” respectfully split the difference between Tight Fight appreciation eras, resting on fuzzed-out rhythms and jangly leads from Henery and Dow alongside Casey Nealon’s constant bass thrum. “Life Notice” starts slow and meditative before launching into energetic bursts of half-time post-hardcore.
However, its glorious album standout, “Down University,” that hits the album’s mid-point like a bolt of lightning. Here, Fiddlehead offer up a college anthem that’s rich, melodic, and drenched in academic discontent, raging against the injustice of crushing student loan debt and misplaced societal pressure. As Flynn yells, making a pleading case for self-worth: “No one cares/ It’s just a name/ You are more than a degree.”
As the record powers through to its poignant conclusion, Flynn & Co manage to switch between emotional registers with practised ease. “Joyboy” settles into a gentle mid-tempo swing, soothing the listener with Flynn’s familiar anaphoric constructions. Framed as a multi-generational conversation between rhetorical stand-ins for his departed father and wide-eyed progeny, the track ends with a line that conjures up evocative imagery reminiscent of the gut-wrenching ending to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, daring us to hold fast to hope: “Smile while we carry your fire.”
While it’s clear that life and death are motivating factors in Fiddlehead’s music-making on Between The Richness, they’re also essential features of the band’s creative growth, and nowhere is this more apparent than on spirited album closer, “Heart to Heart.” Once again utilizing the band’s knack for crafting ear-worm rhythms, the track features immaculate songwriting, a mammoth sing-a-long chorus, and tasteful nods to their own narrative through-line (“You can find me in the springtime afternoon/ I’ll be the sunlight on your face and blinding you”).
Between The Richness ends much like it begins, with a guitar ring-out and Flynn’s pipes belting out the line “you’ll still have my heart,” a lyrical gesture that’s once again mirrored by the reappearance of the Cummings poem from “Grief Motif”: “This is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart/ I carry your heart (I carry it in my heart).” Viewed this way, Between The Richness plays out like a closed system, coming full circle under its own power, thrust into being by the eternal dance of opposing forces: inside and outside, old and new, life and death.
Pre-order and stream Between The Richness here.