I first heard about Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros when their Youtube video for the song “Home” went viral back in 2009. The 8mm footage featured frontman Alex Ebert, singer and girlfriend Jade Castrinos, and the rest of the ten-member band running and dancing in the desert of the American southwest. The soaring trumpet and chipper piano made the song catchy, and the lyrics were simple but universal—“Home is whenever I’m with you.” That first album, Up from Below, not only effectively combined a lot of different instruments and a chorus of voices, but also explored a musical landscape that felt both broadly Christian and deeply American. Its melodies captured the carefree nature of childhood, but the sweeping crescendos of the trumpet, keyboards, guitars, and tambourines also evoked a spiritual connection to land and nature, particularly the desert: “Run to the desert / you will see / all that you need to see” (“Desert Song”). Mostly, Up from Below is a story of one man’s (Ebert’s, whose alter ego is Edward Sharpe) journey toward redemption—“Yes I’ve already suffered / I want you to know / That I’m riding on hell’s hot flames / coming up from below.”
Call me a pessimist, but I didn’t expect to like their second album, Here, as much as the first. The band had created such a sensation with their debut, with pop-folk guitars and lyrical melodies, that I didn’t think a second effort could rival the first. Alexander Ebert and Jade Castrinos, who project the main image for the band, still look like a couple of hippies fumbling through stardom. Ebert’s long hair is unruly, his beard a little mangled, his belly nearly concave. And Jade Castrinos has a smile that looks like it’s sewn on. Are they on drugs? I wondered after seeing a television appearance. Will the band exist if the couple breaks up? Have they already sold out by letting one of their songs get featured in a Ford commercial? When do they have time to work if they’re always skipping through the desert?
These concerns clearly say more about my mental state than the capabilities of Edward Sharpe. What I found as soon as I listened to Here is that it revives anew the excitement of the first album, and yet is truer to the band’s artistic vision. Ebert’s voice doesn’t dominate, but instead joins with a chorus on nearly every song, making Here feel gloriously communal. What the second album does carry over from the debut is a kind of appealing and non-doctrinal Christianity. The third track, “I Don’t Wanna Pray,” is Ebert’s gentle critique of Christianity’s more devotional elements. The song starts out like a traditional prayer or gospel song, “I love my God / God made good.” Then it continues,
I don’t wanna pray to my maker
I just wanna live feelin’ free
Not just who I am, but the pink and darling land
And that fiery, wild sky over me
Help me through the sun
Hey, I’m looking everywhere
See I’m looking to become not the pray-er but the prayer.
The video for the lead single, “Man on Fire,” visually sticks to the communal feel. With the lyrics, “Only one desire that’s left in me / I want the whole damn world to come and dance with me,” we could have easily seen Alexander Ebert and Jade Castrinos walking through a town, convincing people to dance. Instead, the band has put out a Wes Anderson-inspired collage of dancers and cheerleaders—even the New York City ballet—moving their “dancing feet” across the screen. Proud mothers and coaches look on, but not one member of the band appears.
In short, Here is an album your whole family can dance to and enjoy. While Ebert is careful to stay away from any explicit mentions of Christianity in his lyrics, the central message is about love and about living in the “here” and now, something that speaks to Christians and spiritual seekers alike. After years of rising singer-songwriters and “coffeehouse rock,” Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes is inspiring, the kind of band music-lovers are hungry for. Here invokes a wide range of genres, from ’60s rock to folk, from reggae to gospel, in an effort to prove that music is an expression by and for a community, a universal language that brings people together. In that sense, the whole album (despite lyrics that insist otherwise) is a prayer that appeals to the purest parts of us.