When Blue October released its last album, Any Man in America, in 2011, it was a breath of fresh air, if only because of how transparent lead singer and lyricist Justin Furstenfeld was as he chronicled the dissolution of his marriage and the fight to see and spend time with his first child. Granted, it wasn't a particularly bright album, musically or lyrically, as it deconstructed and painted that fight. but the honesty in it was brutally engaging.
Perhaps my own experience as a single dad colored my reaction, but I know I'm not the only one who identified with the themes of the album, and although Furstenfeld made the battle within fiercely personal, it was also one that many listeners could identify with. Even so, the tone of Any Man in America was decidedly darker than any of Blue October's previous albums -- both musically and lyrically. And when Furstenfeld lost his battle to see his child, it inevitably sent him into a tailspin, as he turned back to drugs and alcohol for solace.
Fortunately for Furstenfeld, as well as his fans, an ultimatum from both his current wife and his bandmates convinced him to seek help. He returned from rehab treatment in time witness the birth of his daughter and re-engage Blue October with a fresh outlook and attitude.
The resulting album, Sway, was released in August and reveals a side of Blue October that is much more hopeful and redemptive. It also opens up the band musically to a brighter sound, at times recalling the '80s tinged sound that the band visited on History for Sale and at other times having a more expansive sound.
When asking Furstenfeld about the transition last week, he said, "Basically, that album had to be made. It was a dark record, but Any Man had to be made and I had to get it off of my chest. Afterwards, though, I realized you can't really drive the fans any lower."
"Also, you just can't live that way all the time," he continued. "At some point, you have to step up as a man and decide to work through it. I had just been in a place where I didn't realize the world didn't revolve around me all of the time."
Moving forward then, Furstenfeld and his bandmates set out to create something more uplifting and positive.
"When we got together to work on this record, rule number one was no songs about how bad Justin's got it or how bad the world is," he explained. "So I wanted to make it more universally themed. Blue October can paint this beautiful landscape and the lyrics can be just as beautiful, even if they're not as personally driven."
That perspective is felt throughout Sway. It's not that Furstenfeld has stopped addressing personal issues, but he's doing it in more universal brush strokes instead of carving out all the nasty details. In turn, the music is allowed to breathe deeply on this album, instead of being bound by the tense and shallow breathing of the last album that inevitably goes with the stress of the subject matter.
Even as Furstenfeld continues to address personal issues, there's now a light at the end of the tunnel with this album. On the song "Fear", he sings: "Today I don't have to fall apart, I don't have to be afraid, I don't have to let the damage consume me, My shadow see through me." It turns later to the redemption of knowing "believe in yourself and you will walk, fear in itself will use you up and break you down like you were never enough; I used to fall, now I get back up."
Elsewhere, Furstenfeld's lyrics are downright uplifting on "Things We Don't Know About", approaching love cautiously as he feels the need to sit down and talk with his subject to clear his head, then revealing: "I promise I'll never leave, I'll stand right by you, I swear I won't betray you, when I see you smile..."
Perhaps what makes this all so interesting isn't just the change in tone from the band's last album, but also the fact that it's a distinct left turn from the tone of Furstenfeld's solo tour, which stopped in Tulsa in April. That tour saw him read excerpts from his memoir and delve into the details of his catalog with Blue October. Entitled the "Open Book Tour", each show was intensely personal and felt like a conversation with each member of the audience.
When asked how that solo tour fit into the big picture and how it affected his work with Blue October, Furstenfeld said, "The solo tour allowed me to take all of the turmoil and leave it there. I feel like it let me apologies for all of the lies I'd told -- to the press and the audience -- about being sober and not using drugs. It allowed me to make amends with a lot of people and make amends with the audience."
"I think it also let me let go of stuff that I didn't want to touch the band anymore," he said. "So now, it's almost like a new band. We've got new music and I can really enjoy it now, maybe for the first time."
Of course, part of Furstenfeld's bond with the audience was the fact that he was so transparent with his battles in his lyrics. With Sway, he hasn't necessarily left that behind; he's just addressing the issues in more universal terms.
When asked how he reacted when fans inevitably shared their struggles and how they identified with his songs on a personal level, Furstenfeld shared his perspective.
"I used to just write it out because it was in my head and I would be as specific as possible because that's how it was," he said. "I didn't really realize it affected other people until I met people afterwards and they told me."
"I'm just the blind leading the blind," he continued, "but some people will ask me questions like I have the answers, and I'm the first person to say you don't want to ask me. I don't have the answers."
Although Furstenfeld admitted that he never really looked at himself and his songs in that light, he does identify with connecting so personally with other people's songs. "For me, it was bands like The Smiths and The Cure and Cowboy Junkies that got me through my teenage years."
"I do remember the first time I heard The Stand Up LA's 'True'. I was just a little kid," he shared, "but it just made my heart hurt. And when I heard Roy Orbison's 'Crying' for the first time, I was probably only five years old, but I was just in tears."
"There will always be critics who say 'Justin is too dramatic or too whiny or whatever, but they don't realize I didn't write those songs for them," Furstenfeld concluded. "I did it for the sake of being healthy in my head."
Even though he admits that his writing has always been more personally motivated, Furstenfeld concluded, "I do think there's a true bond with finding the light at the end of the tunnel." With their new album, Sway, Furstenfeld and Blue October are doing just that -- and beginning to walk into that light. Inevitably, it will make the bond with the fans that have walked through the darkness with them even stronger -- and it will likely draw others back that had to step away for a bit.
Blue October returns to Cain's Ballroom this Friday night, October 19, with a new perspective to share as they reconnect with fans new and old. Tickets are still available for $24 in advance or $28 at the door.
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