With Cavanagh firmly working the clean vocals that would a signature of all their later albums, Anathema started working on the evolution of their music with Alternative 4, which languishes in morose moods, a bit to its detriment. There are still whispers of the heaviness of previous albums, but when the band goes full-on forlorn, too often the songs get a little lost. As such, it’s an interesting record of a band finding its footing in a new arena, with some really great tracks and some tracks that lack the bite or claws to dig in and be truly memorable.
The brief opening track “Shroud of False” is so taken with Pink Floyd for a moment I thought it was a cover. It’s a touchstone for some of the things Anathema incorporate into Alternative 4, particularly with the changes to guitar tone and lush keyboard accompaniment that occupy many of the later tracks. “Fragile Dreams” starts to get right that breadth of propulsion that’s a hallmark of the best tracks from the band’s next two albums, and also starts to show the kind of deep, resonant writing guitarist and vocalist Danny Cavanagh would bring to the band.
But for my money the album really doesn’t shine until the later tracks, starting with the title track and especially moving into “Regret,” another Danny Cavanagh composition and the longest song on the album. It’s also where Vincent Cavanagh’s vocals really stand out, as he fully embraces the longing, melancholic voice that stands for me as one of the best in modern rock. Hearing him sing those lyrics never fail to put me in a dark place, but it’s a place that feels so comfortable. That comfort comes from how the music is married to the words – taken on their own I can see the resonances to my own life but they’re empty, simple lyrics instead of poetry. But with the right voice everything comes alive in this beautiful despair:
I wish I didn’t know now that
I never knew then
Memories punish me again.
Sometimes I remember all the pain that I have seen
Sometimes I wonder what might have been
I don’t really revisit Alternative 4 that much. I always thought it was mainly because of the lack of real grabbers, something I still hold to. But when I revisited it now, and those same feelings washed over me when “Regret” came on, I think I had more specific reasons for not coming back. Perhaps it’s a pain that needs to be embraced and properly moved on from; perhaps it’s something deeper I don’t want to probe just yet.
Perhaps it’s something else.