Band of Horses' Ben Bridwell has, by his own admission, written the same song five separate times now. Well, actually, maybe only three times: "Weed Party" in 2006, "Laredo" in 2010, and "Casual Party" in 2016. They all represent what has come to be the group's core sound — plaintive lyrics and prolonged vowel sounds ("sociopyaaaath," "Loryeeenzo”) delivered over stretched guitar chords and a mid-tempo rock beat. "I do not notice when I'm writing the same song over and over again, but I guess it's my song, you know?" Bridwell says. "But, shit. I don't even care when it's done. I'm just like, I like that song again."
The latest incarnation, "Casual Party," is the lead single from Band of Horses' Why Are You OK, released on June 10. The song's lyrics detail the kind of social scene you might find yourself in as you settle into a new life, talking TV or home repair or hobbies with a crowd of semi-strangers you don't particularly care about but are forced to gab on with. Bridwell lives in Charleston, South Carolina, when he's not on the road, and when he comes home to his wife and four daughters, plenty of casual parties await. "I'm not sitting there trying to grow up by any means," he tells MTV News. "I forget that I'm supposed to, until something like a damn fucking dinner party shows up, or I have to do something stupid." He smiles. "Uh, that's not nice."
Why Are You OK's trick is pairing these mundane moments with an increasingly expansive sound. The 12-song album is Band of Horses' first release of new material in four years, which can feel like an eternity in the streaming era. (For reference, Spotify reported having 15 million total users when the group's last studio album, Mirage Rock, arrived in 2012; the service now has upward of 100 million.) That might have something to do with Bridwell and his four bandmates' choice to recruit an impressive roster of behind-the-board talent to help them wiggle back into view.
Jason Lytle of the psych-rock band Grandaddy produced the album, with a spiritual assist from storied rock giant Rick Rubin, whom Bridwell credits with "see[ing] the forest for the trees with [my] crap-ass demos." After recording wrapped, the band enlisted Dave Fridmann, best known for his work with The Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev, to master it. The result is a sprawling 50-minute work that finds room for both the longest song the band's ever put to tape (seven-minute opener "Dull Times/The Moon") and a brief interlude cheekily titled "Hold on Gimme a Sec."
So is this Band of Horses' space-rock record? "You know, now I might need to give it another listen," guitarist Tyler Ramsey says with a laugh. "Maybe I need to put my headphones on." Ramsey's "Country Teen" is one of the album's more straightforward folk-rock songs on paper; on record, Lytle and the band split it open to create a twirling carnival ride, jutting across both audio channels seemingly from different rooms. Those playful production touches immediately set Why Are You OK apart from the live-take grit of Mirage Rock.
"Sometimes you’d be playing a part and [Lytle would say], ‘No, do it like this,’" Ramsey says, "and it’s such a subtle difference that he was looking for. But when it finally happened and he was happy with it, then you kind of understood."
If making this new album was a "surgical" process, as keyboardist and guitarist Ryan Monroe describes it, then finalizing the kitchen-sink stomper "In a Drawer" (which features Dinosaur Jr.'s J Mascis on vocals) was like using a chainsaw for an appendectomy. Bridwell had worked on the song intermittently for eight years, at one point naming it "Spare Parts" partly out of frustration, until he dug it back out for Why Are You OK and finally finished it — or so he thought, until a phone call from his manager revealed some remaining hesitations about the song.
Bridwell kept digging, reworking the song and eventually renaming it "In a Drawer," a subconscious allusion to the Dinosaur Jr. song "In a Jar." While still in the studio, Bridwell imitated J Mascis's voice and started singing over the track, which prompted Lytle to reach out and recruit Mascis himself to sing the chorus. At the end of the process, Bridwell was wiped out but enthralled, telling his band and managers, "I don't care if y'all don't like it. You can cut it from the damn record, but I'm not changing it one fucking bit. I wanna hear it again and figure out what the fuck just happened."
"In a Drawer" plays that way, like a big wind that kicks up whatever's out on the curb and knocks it into your line of vision. In addition to Mascis, the song features singers Jenn Champion and Sera Cahoone, whom Bridwell played with in Seattle indie-rock mainstays Carissa's Wierd in the 1990s and early 2000s.
"Bananas as fuck," Bridwell says of the personnel on Why Are You OK. "It's, like, dream team to the max. It's like ‘Friends Party.' That's probably the next song I’m gonna write."