Brendan Benson summed up my feelings about the first new music from Toad The Wet Sprocket in 17 years: "It's so good to be here with my old, familiar friend..."
I had the pleasure and privilege of interviewing Toad frontman Glen Phillips upon the release of his excellent, experimental Secrets Of The New Explorers EP during which he graciously discussed his post-Toad solo work as well as the ongoing relationship with the band he helped found. At that time, TTWS toured regularly, playing for a fan base that never forgot them. I asked a question that included the phrase "new material" without meaning to suggest it, to which Phillips replied such a thing was "unlikely." He didn't rule it out but at that time didn't see it happening. Five years later, he, Todd Nichols, Dean Dinning, and Randy Guss have done just that and no one is happier about it than I am.
New Constellation is wonderfully, quintessentially Toad. They needed to put the band on the shelf for a time but kept all those ingredients fresh and in a place they could access when the time was right and that time is now. Glen Phillips' clear, pure voice is as sweet as ever, the blend of acoustic strums and The Edge-light guitar work of Phillips and Todd Nichols remain musical cornerstones, and the harmonies of Phillips, Nichols, and the crucial voice of bassist Dean Dinning are marvelous. We even get a song with Nichols singing lead (two if you get the deluxe edition), the gorgeous "Life is Beautiful." Everything we love about TTWS is here and so are the songs.
Phillips' gift as a lyricist lies in his ability to write songs of wide-eyed optimism and the joy of being alive in turbulent times while also exploring deeper hurts within us with gentle solemnity. The title track, which opens the album, is a textbook example. He paints a picture of a man lost in noise and confusion yet finds comfort in how "it feels so good to be so small" and the strength of spirit to see above the chaos to reach clarity.
It's an ideal song to reacquaint us with the band and also showcases a lyrical development in Phillips' songwriting. Phillips' "uncertain language, imperfect words" are filled with references to nature and the natural world, aiding him in telling his stories and uncovering emotional truths and hurts. The cosmos is at the center of "New Constellation," a hurricane in "The Eye," rains and canyons in "I'll Bet On You," a wilderness in "Golden Age," and "Rare Bird" is self-explanatory.
The surprise moment on New Constellation is "I'll Bet On You," also known as "See You Again" for those of us music nerds who followed the TTWS tributaries. Phillips stayed active with a solo career during the band's hiatus while Nichols formed a band called Lapdog which featured at times both Dinning and drummer Randy Guss. "See You Again" is my favorite Lapdog song and Toad apparently liked it as they've taken its arrangement and shell and repurposed it here with new lyrics from Phillips and Nichols. Either version of this song could've been a radio hit for the band back in their major label days and it is one of the strongest tracks on the record. The deluxe edition includes a great Toad version of the Phillips' solo track "Finally Fading."
Very few bands come back together after a hiatus and recapture their magic but Toad The Wet Sprocket has done exactly that, sounding comfortable in their skin and wiser for the time. We never wanted them to leave but absence made the heart fonder and New Constellation was worth the wait. They are back and we are all the better for it. Here's hoping New Constellation is a new beginning, one that will bring more new music without a 17-year wait. It's so good to be here with my old and familiar friends. Welcome back, Toad.