Before fans could accept Midlake’s nine-year hiatus as an end to the band’s anthology, the Texas-based group released their album, For The Sake of Bethel Woods. Free from the fashionable obscurity of their earlier work, For The Sake of Bethel Woods conveys themes of loss, loneliness, and optimism in digestible soft rock.
Bethel Woods, located in New York, was the site of the infamous 1969 Woodstock Festival. Midlake seems to continuously draw from the sounds of the era to craft their fifth album. The band’s reunion was set in motion by keyboardist and flautist, Jesse Chandler, after his deceased father visited him in a dream and urged him to reconnect with his bandmates. Appropriately, the album cover is the painted interpretation of a scene from the 1970 documentary, Woodstock, that features Chandler’s father, aged 16, attending the festival.
The band was initially formed by a quintet of jazz students, lending way to expertly crafted harmonies that walk the line between discord and aural tenderness.
The opening track, Commune, longs over identities lost over the passage of time and acts as an acoustic foreword before delving into the album’s eponymous song. Bethel Woods is more fleshed out than its predecessor with erratic drums and a coup of a pre-chorus crescendos. The percussion builds suspense as Eric Pulido’s vocals urge the listener to “leave what’s become familiar” and indulge in the band’s escapist reveries.
The sonic edging of Bethel Woods culminates in the album’s most danceable song, Glistening. Aptly named for its shimmering instrumentals and dynamic arpeggios, the psychedelic track completes the album’s opening trio and sets the tone for the next half hour.
Buried in the middle of the tracklist is Midlake’s fervent tribute to the son of drummer McKenzie Smith. Born with a rare brain disorder, Noble lends his name to the song and provides a layer of precision to the band’s typically ambiguous lyrics. Centred around parental affection and grief, the song offers a rare twist to the love ballad formula. Delicate verses such as “You can always laugh / While I struggle to crack a smile / Struggle to keep it all inside” reflect the emotional depth of Smith’s bittersweet gratitude.
The rest of the album is filled with more euphony drawing from ‘70s rock and lyrics intending to be heartfelt but too vague to evoke any strong emotion.
For The Sake of Bethel Woods ends with an emphatic climax. Drawing back to the introduction, Of Desire feels like an epilogue in the album’s narrative arc, especially because it follows The End, a somewhat ironically titled penultimate track. Beginning softly and growing into a thunderous final minute, the distorted vocals and resounding drums draw the album to a satisfying conclusion.
For The Sake of Bethel Woods was born out of tragedy but does not linger in depressive episodes, rather the folk-rock glistens with instrumentals. At its heart, the album is deeply intertwined with a thirst for reconnecting with the past and a hunger for finding meaning in what was lost. The slow-burning album flows with tangible peaks and troughs, marking a gratifying and triumphant return for a long missed band.