Promise Ring : Wood/Water

Life-threatening illness inspires emo journeymen's fourth and best album...

Milwaukee quintet The Promise Ring‘s journey to ‘Wood/Water’ was an emotional white water. With three records critically acclaimed and successful by emo standards (1995’s ’30 Degrees Everywhere’, 1997’s rousing ‘Nothing Feels Good’ and the solid 1999 follow-up ‘Very Emergency’) things were going fine. Life was okey-dokey for TPR. They cashed decent cheques, they plied their then-unremarkable emo-core.

Post ‘Very Emergency’ a new album was planned, with no anticipated departure from the formula that had brought them a smidgen of success. TPR were ticking over. Then BAM! – in April 2000, singer-songwriter Davey Von Bohlen was diagnosed with a brain tumour the size of a fist. As far as epiphanies go, a fist-sized tumour (that turned out to be benign) must really open up the mind’s eye. ‘Wood/Water’ is the monument at the end of it all, an inspiring burst of twinkling melancholy.

Recorded in England, produced by Stephen Street (knob-twiddler behind The Smiths and Blur‘s finest moments) and mixed by Beck and Beastie Boys associate Mario Caldato Jr, its a soulful, often brilliant collection of bosom-nuzzling pop songs. Think Grandaddy at their most gloriously meandering. Elliott Smith at his most Beatles obsessed. Mercury Rev‘s Jonathan Donahue at his most lost. And rejoice! It’s a record inspired not only by a brush with the reaper, but a new found optimism for life. In the hands of the righteous, TPR‘s optimism would be sickening. However, in the hands of emo-kids, its great.

Opener ‘Size Of Your Life’ (like Blur‘s ‘Tender’ but with humility) sees Von Bohlen setting the lyrical tone for the rest of this journey – a leg-up for our cynical hearts. “Yeah, I’ve been around before – ohhhh!” says Von Bohlen, refocusing his world-weary eyes. “This time I don’t know what’s in store”. ‘Suffer Never’ soars off like Idlewild and is equally up-and-at-’em: “It can be so much better/ Get out – lovely weather!”.

They do strike a couple of bum notes along the way, mind. ‘Say Goodbye Good’ is the Stereophonics doing ‘Hey Jude’. ‘My Life Is At Home’ is the weeny-wienered emo-standard. But these pithy grumbles pale into insignificance next to the Mercury Rev-fondling ‘Letters To The Far Reaches’, ‘Half Year Sun’ and the many oddities that buzz around ‘Wood/Water’.

The overall diagnosis? Few records this year will get as close to you as ‘Wood/Water’. This patient’s in great health.

Imran Ahmed