Toad the Wet Sprocket’s whimsical pop songs created an incongruous yet intriguing fit for radio and MTV programmers during the heyday of 90s alternative rock. Imagine the tenable pop hooks of “All I Want” and “Something’s Always Wrong” sandwiched between the sonic grunge fest of Pearl Jam and Nirvana.
Hit singles and platinum albums were the norm before “musical differences” split these high school friends from California in 1998. Now older and possibly wiser from the experience, Toad the Wet Sprocket returns with the wistful New Constellation, its first collection of new material in 16 years.
The album reflects the themes of balancing self-doubt and regret with second chances. “Is there anyone out there/’cause I don’t know how to reach across the breach/so deep between us,” Glen Phillips sings on the shimmering guitar pop of “Is There Anyone Out There?”
Sporadic touring coupled with time away from recording hasn’t dulled the band’s sense of melody and strong musicianship. Musically, the songs have a relaxed, easy feel, as if the band played barefoot, sipping peppermint tea in the studio. Free of label and industry demands, what you have is Toad the Wet Sprocket, the 2013 model.
The songs on the Kickstarter-funded album are more direct than previous efforts, and the band doesn’t stray too far from its guitar-bass-drums-vocal setup. That opens room for Phillips to expand his vocal palette and clear a path to the emotional core of these songs.
On the genial “Rare Bird,” Phillips warm tenor glides to a falsetto as he sings of setting a lover free. Phillips stretches himself even further with his trip through the cosmos on “New Constellation.” Over a bouncy guitar riff and a rush of “oh-ohs,” Phillips name checks patron saints and declares his “love to all creation.”
The album’s four up-tempo numbers, “Is There Anyone Out There?” and the rousing “I’ll Bet on You,” among them, are propelled with uplifting choruses that bring a majestic quality thanks to the backing vocal work of guitarist Todd Nichols (who also sings lead on “Life is Beautiful”) and bassist Dean Dinning.
Lyrically, Phillips is a wheeler and dealer with a gift of language and observation. He continues on his journey of spiritual self-reflection that began with Fear. “God loves a madman/but I wore his patience through,” Phillips softly sings on “Golden Age” as a gentle fingerpicking and piano melody trickle by.
The song offers a swirl of lyrical allusions touching on an angel, a kitchen knife, and a peacemaking saint. And that’s all in the second verse. Alluding presumably to personal and professional loss, Phillips yearns of a redemptive return to a more tranquil and harmonious period. “Walls and barricades surround our golden age/we will return again someday.”
Quite a promise from New Constellation, an album whose melancholic edges are lightened with the hope that comes from starting anew. And somewhere along the way, Phillips and his band mates discover the journey toward reconciliation and forgiveness, like the album, is a rewarding one.
Toad the Wet Sprocket – New Constellation tracklist:
- “New Constellation”
- “California Wasted”
- “The Moment”
- “Rare Bird”
- “I’ll Bet on You”
- “Golden Age”
- “Get What You Want”
- “Is There Anyone Out There”
- “Life is Beautiful”
- “The Eye”