The Granada Theater, Saturday, June 23: Gusts of air conditioning bat around bouquets of red, white and blue balloons, grouped in threes and fours. Many have been set free and bob lackadaisically around the ceiling. A swollen sold-out crowd melds into one entity, but occasionally a single individual peels away: a suburban mom holding a baby, a 10-year-old boy with a buzz cut, a chunky 20-something guy asking anyone who will listen "Yo, dude, do you know where the hallucinogens are?" A giant flag, gray with red rays that look like a rising sun, obscures the stage. Reportedly the pied piper of orchestral-concept-psyche-rock, Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips, lurks somewhere backstage.
The Polyphonic Spree's Fragile Army has returned home.
Every head in the Granada swivels as a spotlight reverses its usual trajectory and highlights a single spot in the balcony, right near the sound booth, where a soldier in the Fragile Army furiously plays a harp in the most rock 'n' roll way a harp can be played. It is both lilting and jarring, plucky but serious, a mesmerizing metaphor for the dualities to come.
Or perhaps the dualities are already there. After all, the phrase The Fragile Army, which of course is the title of the Spree's latest album, seems an uncomfortable juxtaposition of words. Harmless, precious things like crystal vases and babies are fragile; armies are virile and strong and intent on domination. But when the audience's collective head snaps back to the stage, just as the harp-playing reaches its crescendo, just as the Fragile Army's founder and leader Tim DeLaughter rips open the flag to reveal his 20-odd-piece brainchild, it's obvious he has intentionally created such a paradox.
Impish and brilliant, DeLaughter appears especially delighted to be onstage in front of his hometown fans. But admittedly, DeLaughter usually looks pretty damn delighted whenever he takes the stage. What is different this time is subtle but important: Yes, there is the usual exuberance. Yes, the Spree's famous six-woman choir belts out lofty upbeat vocals, never ceasing their joyous choreographed dancing. And, yes, DeLaughter, who from afar resembles Elijah Wood's Frodo Baggins, sprays loving enthusiasm around with the power of a fire hose, preaching his musical gospel of love thy neighbor. This eschewing of irony, this genuine explosion of goodwill manifested in a complex orchestra of pop, this... happiness—they are all vintage Polyphonic Spree.
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But these days, in the fight for world dominance, happiness faces a battle angled more acutely uphill than that of the fictional Frodo, and there are signs DeLaughter is beginning to respond. To begin, the Spree have shed their trademark, flowing, church choir-type robes—the same ones that have led some to draw the ridiculous conclusion that the band is a cult—for streamlined metal-gray army uniforms. Interesting, too, the lyrical shifts, as DeLaughter first sings "Hold Me Now" from 2004's Together We're Heavy, the chorus of which reads "Hold me now/Don't start shaking/You keep me safe/Don't ever think/You're the only one/When times are tough in your new age." The audience members know every word, chanting along at the top of their lungs, and all seems right in the world. Except, shortly after, DeLaughter launches into "Younger Yesterday," from the Spree's latest disc. It's a tune still rife with all the Spree bells and whistles (and woodwinds, strings and brass for that matter), but it's slightly edgier, slightly melancholy, anchored by a mellow acoustic guitar. "Well, everybody cries/I think I'm beginning to find/I was younger yesterday/And I'm feeling not so great," DeLaughter sings. Ultimately, it's not a grand departure from the Spree theme of finding refuge—redemption, even—in a harsh world; but it sounds more resigned, especially when the martial imagery returns: "We're marching left to right," DeLaughter continues, "I think it's a little bit outta sight/I've always felt like this/And I think it's got to do with the sound/Of everybody's cries..."
And this is where things are starting to add up: On the one hand, the idea of a fragile army—an entity meant to be aggressive and dominant finally acquiescing to the concept of human fallibility—is a beautiful fantasy. On the other hand, DeLaughter seems to be upping the stakes. The uniforms, the marching, they all point to the idea that the world needs a militant approach to spreading joy, otherwise the domino effect of despondency will continue unabated. It is, at the very least, a barely balanced, conflicting duality. At the worst, it's a straight-up paradox.
DeLaughter's emerging dualities are most noticeable during the second song of a lengthy encore (for which the army changes into the famous robes). After the first song, a version of "Sonic Bloom," from DeLaughter's old band Tripping Daisy (a special treat for the Dallas audience), the Spree bust into Nirvana's "Lithium." Kurt Cobain's original screechy, ragged delivery made it clear the song was a declaration of a violently schizoid mindset, but DeLaughter delivers a mixed message. "I'll kill you/I'm not gonna crack," comprise a portion of the famous chorus, and tonight the audience sings along en masse, jumping and pogoing as a single unit. Yet, DeLaughter pointedly refuses to sing "kill," leaving it to the crowd, which obliges. It's a compromise of sorts, a partial acceptance of two sides of the same lyric.
It's no surprise that Coyne, one of Cobain's contemporaries, is in the house; after all, the Flaming Lips are the granddaddies of the type of symphonic, catchy, choral rock that DeLaughter pumps out with such glee and skill. But the Lips always cut it with an ugly—some would say realistic—underbelly. Coyne's songs have always been rife with violent or just plain sad subjects and scenarios, armies battling for the souls of humanity, good scientists trying to save a dying world, and it seems DeLaughter is following suit. The difference is, DeLaughter appears to be struggling with his resignation, which presents his fans with their own struggle: In these times of actual armies pitching actual battles over an actual future, do we prefer the almost mindlessly happy cult-world, or do we need a battalion of grim determination, set on winning our hearts and minds, at the expense of finally accepting reality?