Im Gegensatz zum Vorgänger "Can't Wait Another Day" erwecken viele Songs den Eindruck im Demo-Modus verblieben zu sein und klingen weniger glatt und ausgefeilt. Die 10 Songs tendieren in etwas mehr als 30 Minuten Spielzeit mal in Richtung 80er Jahre und New Wave, dann werden sonniger, psychedelischer 60s-Pop und melancholischer Indiepop für Freunde von The Smiths, Belle & Sebastian oder Jens Lekman angesteuert. Erhalten bleibt uns Olsons sonore, an den Sänger der Band Jack (Was ist eigentlich aus denen geworden?) gemahnende Stimme und das diesmal fehlende Saxofon-Solo wird sicherlich niemand ernsthaft vermissen.
Clutching Stems works, though, because it is more about honoring than dreary lamenting. There's disorienting grief here to be sure -- "So lost in this place," Olson pines at one point, "alone with the view" -- but sounds rise up, Olson's deep croon reaches for higher notes, for moments of beauty in the face of loss. On "Oh Christina" he dismisses both Joy Division and Neil Young, claiming he never agreed that love could either a) tear us apart or b) only break your heart. It's a brilliant song in the middle of the record, one that recognizes the power of pop music while also dismissing this one-sided, and dark, view of love.
The album doesn't ignore that heartache, as Olson weaves some dark lines into his bright pop songs, but the album never fully gives into despair. On closer "Life Less True," you can feel the long grief process has taken its toll. "You don't know what I've been though," he insist, and goes on to admit "I don't dream anymore." But as Olson's words run out on him -- there's a guitar solo where the chorus should be here -- the music says what his voice can't. The song works to a brilliant burst of horns and keys and drums. It's the most untethered and vital the band sounds on the whole record, every player anywhere near the studio seems to be in there making a sound, whipping the record up one final time for a lost friend.
It's a heartening finish for Clutching Stems, and this bright edge actually works to shed light on the album's subtle but affecting shifts in mood. Without this sunburst of noise, you might not notice the darker edge of the strings on the excellent "Hey Jack I'm on Fire" or the foggy keys on the otherwise vibrant "Fallen and Falling." It isn't until you get to the end of this record that you can fully see all the places its been. On its surface, it is a brisk, neon-bright pop record, but to dig into it is to find something much more complicated and rewarding than that. It's conflicted with muted joy and lingering sadness; it raises questions of grief and heartache without easy answers and manages to make a very personal grief into something universal yet still honest to the bone. Clutching Stems is the band's finest record since The Albemarle Sound, and the kind of pop record that may break your heart, may even tear you apart, but it's also generous and complex enough to put you back together in the end.