Listening to Horse Thief’s previous release — the haphazardly melodramatic Grow Deep, Grow Wild — felt like a chore. Whatever potential the Oklahoma City folk-pop act demonstrated on the EP was obscured behind a formulaic, contrived and ultimately hollow cloud. But it at least offered a glimmer of promise for a band consisting of, frankly, five pretty talented dudes. Critics saw it; the band’s management saw it; its current label, Bella Union, saw it; and its increasingly fervid fan base saw it.
On its first proper full-length, Fear in Bliss, Horse Thief embraces what it does best — strong but never showy musicianship, engaging melody minus the canned histrionics — and the intricacy of its songs has progressed so much that it almost sounds like a different band altogether. Its arrangements are meticulously crafted, dramatic moments unfurl naturally and frontman Cameron Neal’s lyrics are more nuanced, purposeful and confessional all the same. The word “maturation” doesn’t often apply to a band’s debut album, but it is undoubtedly applicable here.
With songs like the stirring opener “I Don’t Mind,” the elegantly adventurous “Come On” and the ethereal, hair-raising climax of hidden track “Stop,” the band pushes itself into new compositional territory while achieving previously unforeseen emotional highs. In its more stripped-down, fragile moments (“Already Dead,” “Warm Regards”), Neal channels his inner Robin Pecknold or Mike Hadreas, singing lines like, “This music makes me sad/ but I cannot help myself,” with an about-to-crack vulnerability, striking a revealing yet relatable chord.
Working with producer Thom Monahan, who has also collaborated with likeminded folk acts Vetiver and Devendra Banhart, seems to have paid vital dividends. His polished, dreamlike stamp is applied liberally throughout the record, as is his ability to extract and build upon a song’s positive traits, and the enhancements are becoming. By no means is the album perfect; it runs longer than it should, and save for a couple songs, it’s essentially a derivative, post-Fleet Foxes affair. But for the most part, Fear in Bliss finds Horse Thief growing into its grizzled skin — the skin it was meant to inhabit from the onset — and realizing just how good it can eventually become. — Zach Hale