Various rock bands have crafted epic concept albums that evolved musically with the progression of the storyline. But The Early November may be the first modern rock outfit to create two dramatically different records around a single thematic idea. And they're certainly the only group to unveil their grandiose storyline through a third CD that chronicles the tale with an inventive combination of dialogue and music.
The Mother, The Mechanic, And The Path, the band's second full release, is a work of great scope, ambition and musical talent that resonates with the pain, ambivalence, confusion and creative brilliance of frontman Ace Enders. From start to finish, the discs take the listener on a journey through the minds of their characters and the difficult choices they make as they reach various crossroads in their lives.
"This is something I always wanted to do," Enders says. "We were going to do a single album to follow up the last one, and everyone said that was a safe bet, but I don't want to just do something safe that's just gonna get us to the next part of our career. I figured you're not gonna get many opportunities to do something like this, so why not do it now?"
The Mother, The Mechanic, And The Path probably won't help The Early November reach the next part of their career. It will enable them to vault it completely and attain a new level of acclaim. The band's 2003 album The Room's Too Cold received widespread praise and to date, The Early November has sold over 300,000 copies of all their releases without the support of radio or TV.
In order to provide fans three discs for the price of one, Early November and Drive-Thru Records have both agreed to spend more on the production and significantly reduce their royalties. "I didn't want fans to pay more just because we had this idea that took three CDs to do," Enders says. "I wouldn't have done it any other way."
The semi-autobiographical plot of The Mother, The Mechanic And The Path addresses the challenges and epiphanies of a young man growing up with an overbearing father, who leaves him and later pretends not to be his dad. During the course of the story - revealed vividly on The Path CD in a conversation between the youth and his psychiatrist - the teenager runs away from home with his girlfriend and the couple have their own child. While they're initially determined to avoid the mistakes their parents made, as their son gets older, he too starts to rebel, and the ill-fated protagonist finds himself becoming more and more like his father.
"As the story goes along, you hear his hatred for his dad, then you start to notice the similarities between them, and in the end you see they have pretty much the same problems," says Enders. "At that point, the voice of the psychiatrist and the voice of the main character blend into one, and you realize that this dude has been talking to himself the whole time and there's no psychiatrist at all. He has multiple personalities. He judges everyone else, but never puts the blame on himself. I think the main point I wanted to get across was for people not to always question other people and talk about them all the time, but to sort of look at themselves. That was my motivation."
"Money in His Hand," the opening track on the first disc, The Mechanic, kicks off with two sustained, distorted chords, and sets the tone for the visceral display to follow. The track is equally parts power pop, blues-rock and punk and reaches its zenith with the cynical realization, "It's not the heart that makes the man/ it's the money in his hand." The song is followed by "The Rest of My Life," which layers scribbly guitar lines through a propulsive guitar rhythm and contrasts sedated vocal melodies with anguished screams. What makes The Mechanic so powerful is the manner in which it's constructed. The songs build and dip in intensity in unpredictable, but ear-pleasing ways, always maintaining a balance between overdriven rock outs and euphoric sing-a-longs.
Of course, along the way, The Early November throw some curveballs, like "No Good at Saying Sorry," which starts with lazy strumming and bluesy slide guitar reminiscent of Afghan Whigs, then bursts into a hazy power ballad to rival Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Under the Bridge." And while the song's lyrics are part of the overarching album concept, they stand alone as a universal cry of regret and hope: "One more chance, I never would react like this/ One more time give me time enough to think about it/ And one last straw it be strong enough to make this work/ Or throw away everything."
"I think The Mechanic is pretty much the rock album we would have done if we didn't do the concept thing," Enders says. "That's the produced CD that's more polished and perfect. The mechanic is the one who works on things and fixes things, so The Mechanic represents the people here constantly building and trying to improve what we have."
The second disc, The Mother, is immediate and unencumbered, featuring a bounty of powerful singer/songwriter tunes and pop numbers that underscore the softer, more passionate side of The Early November. "Little Black Heart" starts with spare, delicate strumming and melancholy vocal harmonies before a mandolin counter-melody drifts in, giving the song additional dimension without any drums. "Driving South" imbues a reflective folk number with a shuffling beat and country twang. Then, there are more fleshed out songs like the driving "Scared to Lose," an up-tempo rocker in the vein of the Lemonheads or early Soul Asylum and the first single "Hair" is quirky and offbeat, treated with plinking piano and a trombone solo, and propelled by a jaunty verse that yields to a lush, blossoming chorus. The song is about the superficialities in life that people accept as normal.
"Everyone puts on this act so people look at them in the way they want to be seen," Enders says. "So the song is about recognizing that and breaking away from it and trying to be yourself. It happens in the part of the story when the main character runs away and then he goes, "Maybe I shouldn't have done that and now I've left myself in a worse position."
While The Mother is far from incomplete sounding, Enders says it was important to keep it stripped down in order to emphasize the purity of the music. "It's simple and straightforward and it's supposed to represent Mother Earth -- like what we were born with and what we started with," Enders says.
As original as the other two discs in the set are, The Path itself is a different creature altogether - one that sets The Early November apart from any group around today. Somewhere between a rock opera and a Broadway musical, the disc uses various sonic styles including classical, folk, pop, rock, punk, country, even demented Dixieland jazz as the backdrop to the narrative. The Mother and The Mechanic come together and they make The Path, which is the big story CD that shows you the path to everything that all of these songs are about," says Enders.
Amazingly, Enders created The Mother, The Mechanic, And The Path with no precedent or blueprint and nothing but vision to drive his creativity. He never even heard the Who's Tommy or Pink Floyd's The Wall, other seminal concept albums about familial conflict and the search for self. "I just recently bought Pink Floyd's The Wall because my brother's really into it, but I still haven't listened to it yet," he says. "I was more inspired by movies. I watched a lot of things like "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," "The Truman Show" and "The Matrix," which were all about questioning things, and that sort of stuff really sparked something in me and got me in the mood. Anything that made me feel like questioning what was happening around me was good."
While The Mother, The Mechanic, And The Path is groundbreaking and revelatory, Enders was feeling far from inspired right before he started the project. In fact, he was fed up with the music business and considered dropping out altogether. "I was driving home one night and I was feeling like I just had enough," he explains. "I figured I'd work construction or retail or whatever. I hated the business part of it and I was thinking that I wanted to do something that wasn't about advancing my career. I was really questioning my motives. I was going why? Why am I here? Why do I want to be in the music business? Do I want to do it to be successful? Do I want to do it to be creative? It was a real overwhelming time. And I realized if I was going to keep doing this, I had to do something different and something special. Something that was a real challenge and might make a real difference."
After rising from his creative funk, Enders started writing in the summer of 2004 and toiled furiously until early 2005. In February of that year, he and his bandmates started recording and while the end results are immaculate, the process was fraught with tension and complications. "We had to take a bunch of time off between recording because we were ready to kill each other," Enders says. "Going into the studio with three albums in mind just made me shut down and freak out after a while. It was such a big project that it was really overwhelming at times. The toughest part was having it all fit together and make sense. And the pressure was on because we were running out of time and money."
In the end, of course, The Early November more than rose to the challenge. The Mother, The Mechanic, And The Path will never be mistaken for just another rock record about relationships and angst "I'm incredibly proud of this record," Enders says. "The energy we put into it and the support we had while we were making it gave me a little bit of hope that maybe people aren't just into this for making money. It made me grow up in a bunch of different ways and look at things in a different light. It's been a long, bumpy ride since we started writing this record, and now I'm just waiting for things to smooth out."