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Like Clockwork shows erratic flashes of pop brilliance on These Are All Things

I’ve been expecting These Are All Things to come out for a little over three years, which is about a third of the time this blog has been around. So, when Like Clockwork (aka Jesse Owen Astin) finally unveiled it, I did what I do with all my long-awaited albums: I listened to it in my car, while driving. After the first listen, I had one thought firmly implanted in my head: What?!

I’ve known for as long as I’ve been listening to Like Clockwork that Astin has wide-ranging interests. He’s got modern rock, acoustic pop, dance-rock, modern pop and more in his pocket. I didn’t know which direction These Are All Things would go. The answer: all of them.

And that is one of the hardest parts to swallow about the release: it’s so varied that it barely holds together. If you threw three darts at a visual interpretation of the album, you would not hit songs that sound anything like each other. “Patience Patients” opens the set with an acoustic lead-in to a modern rock piece. “Keys” is a dark number with a pressing drum machine that makes me think of She Wants Revenge. “Oh My God!” traps one of the best pop choruses of the year inside a grating intro and long, spoken-word outro. “I Want a Family” is a gripping, devastating acoustic track that is the hands-down best song Like Clockwork has ever written.

And the whole album goes like that, dropping in and out of Astin’s interests at will. This diversity is almost certainly due to the fact that it came together over such a long period; there’s no sense of timeliness to the album at all. There are, however, thematic elements in the lyrics that tie it together.

Astin’s really concerned with love here, but not with the wishy-washy, infatuation love that the radio gets so hyped on. He ties his concept of love into religion, which is featured prominently in the lyrical matter. “Jesus Christ Crashing Star” features poet Trace William Cowen reading a poem that denounces God as dying with Santa Claus, and points to the omnipresence of love as what people are seeking. Astin’s grandmother gives her take on the outro of  “The Dark,” while the last minute of “Oh My God!” is dedicated to a  clip of a speech proclaiming that “there’s only one people, one nation, one religion, one ideology, and that’s love.”

“Jesus Christ Crashing Star” backs up to standout track “I Want a Family” as the emotional center of the album, putting the idea of “no religion but love” in the album’s crux (“No Other Word For Love” also has this sentiment).

There are also a few tunes that deal with a breakup, as well as thoughts on growing up. It seems that These Are All Things is Astin’s bildungsroman album; and as coming of age is never a neat and tidy process, perhaps the wide-ranging sounds on the release best mirror what was happening in his life at the time.

Another intriguing aspect of this album is this: I was given what amounts to the first draft. After hearing some thoughts on the record, Astin cut out several tracks (including the worst offender) and added the rock track “Be Your Man” at the end, which wraps all of his tendencies (rock, pop, emotionality, distorted guitar, acoustic guitar, even a touch of dance) into one song that completes the album perfectly. It doesn’t make the individual parts mesh with each other better, but it does bring a bit of togetherness to the whole work.

In the end, These Are All Things has several brilliant tracks (“I Want a Family,” the center of “Oh My God!”, “Be Your Man”) and a lot of good ideas scattered throughout a wildly diverse album. These Are All Things is an incredible title for the album, because each song feels like its own thing.

Astin released the album a song at a time over at his Bandcamp; I can’t think of a better way to experience this album than a song at a time over weeks. Try it yourself that way, and see what happens.