Album Review by Brooke Losey
2017 saw the beginning of thinkbendy with CHANGE, the first chapter in a multi-phase vision. Project mastermind Adam Bendy reverently endorsed the habit of looking inward to rediscover the strength we’ve always had: adaptation that thrives. CHANGE delivered this hope with grand arrangements tinged with hesitation, bracing to abandon the instinct of preserving what’s temporary. Bendy’s vocals, powered by twin currents of infectious faith and runaway momentum, felt like a friend’s invitation to ditch doubt and glide on the freedom of embracing whatever comes next. With CHANGE Bendy covered the groundwork necessary to address the next dimension we see on thinkbendy’s second installment, The Essence of Time, which he calls, “the medium of change itself.”
Alex Lusht of Mind Ignition returns to produce, lending The Essence of Time the warm, vital clarity that helped its predecessor soar. As he neatly delivers every shred of power between the instruments’ layers, Lusht also uplifts Bendy’s carefully conducted subtleties, paving the way for a textured soundscape that reveals new details with each listen. More of the usual suspects are back in action: writing, composing, and arranging the album, Bendy wears his trademark many hats as he also plays bass and keys, as well as recording his own vocals for the first time; his longtime friend Rob Salzer annihilates on guitar, Devon Leigh brings dynamic percussion, topped off with a gleefully unhinged trumpet feature from his own cousin, Dr. Thomas Manuel– all propel Bendy and his lyrics toward vocal expression that leans deeply into each song’s emotion. The instrument syncopation on each of these tracks is distinctly satisfying, like a handful of keys somehow hurled far and away into their matching locks. Using this dense atmosphere of overlapping rhythms and layered grooves, The Essence of Time recreates the omnipresent arena of finite, rapid time itself. Bendy walks– or rockets — us through time’s long hallways and trapdoors, hinting that everyone’s temporal strains and shortcuts look a little different.
The album’s lyrics overtly address emotions that, despite feeling like stable ground at first, begin to twist away from their original meaning as moments crawl on. We see this on the opening track, “Why This Way,” as once-pleasant romantic memories fling themselves at Bendy after a breakup, and on the album closer, “Pot of Gold Blues,” which describes the impulse to pour hope into our futures, meanwhile our power lies in the present.
On CHANGE Bendy was the enlightened friend speaking to us from a balanced headspace; here he explores his own time-whisked emotional arcs right beside us. His personal slant reflects the winds of time blowing our balance off course in unique permutations for each person and within each person’s timeline. The title track (or inverted title track) “Time is of the Essence” pulls us in with a slick bass line, followed by hazy verses that set us adrift in contemplation of time’s strict rules. Bendy urges us to take control of what we can and to do so with vigilance– even when “days and weeks are passing with nothing much to show.” Part of that vigilance entails knowing what you can and can’t influence– a distinction Bendy makes by alternating serene verses with raging guitar solos, hunting down the horizons of what can be controlled. The chilling line, “the knot is getting tighter, feels like a big mistake,” notes that age makes time move faster, and while we can’t change that, we can adjust ourselves to see this fact as an advantage. Bendy uses later sections in the track to create a clock structure of his own, foreshadowed by eerie yet steadily echoed vocals in the pre-chorus, followed by a snugly nested rotation of key changes. Each new key reveals subtle symmetries beneath the melody, coordinating a sense of realization through added perspectives. Fitting together like the gears in a clock, these key changes embody the need for variations within a consistent system. Neither a sole gear nor static perceptions yield much, compared to their known potential. Echoes are absent from Bendy’s post-chorus vocals, confirming that the discomfort of time flying must coexist with the satisfaction of gaining awareness.
Shifts between tension and relief are frequent and unexpected. The album’s first two tracks try to accept that time slips away, burying past joy and numbing the severity of our slumps– heavy stuff, only to be blasted away by the modest yet mighty “Low Down.” Possibly the jauntiest ode since those of antique monochromatic cartoons, this track veers sharply into the kind of potent bliss you can only find on a dancing tugboat come-to-life– or its real-world equivalent of appreciating the length of a rewarding, stronger-with-time friendship. You can feel Bendy taking a step back from “Why This Way’s” depression spiral, and another step back from watching the antagonist of “One Day” suffer from his own hypocrisy and pomp. “Low Down” re-centers Bendy’s grip on time scales, the people who bring him joy, and himself. Svelte brass recalls a straight-laced Big Band tuning up for a poolside gala, meanwhile the clear, plosive lead guitar zooms with unspeakably sweet abandon, topped off with Dr. Manuel’s trumpet solos blaring, tumbling through sunlight. Surprising us once again, the next track, “A Man, A Plan, A Canal, Panama,” begins with growling atonal piano flecked with bright guitar sweeps, emphasizing the piano’s menace. The next several measures give the mood time to lift before the verse begins, something we rarely see on The Essence of Time. But even with this transitional buffer, there’s simply no way to prepare for the verse’s barreling locomotive frenzy. Bendy deploys these mood shifts to launch himself to the present moment, steeling himself against the complacency that comes with steady states.
The Essence of Time’s consistent song structures perfectly represent perhaps the only ultimate unifier of human lives; we’re all confined to a finite amount of time. It’s only the events within our timelines that differ, and our changing internal labels for those events over time. Take the placement of each track’s guitar solos; those toward the end of “One Day” swell to a screaming fervor, trying to scrape away the misguided antagonist’s cringe-worthy delusions. As he mistakes comfort for plenty of time, he develops bad moral habits and his life slips away. Bendy bristles at this high horsery, his voice growing more intense with the pressurized steam of exposed injustice. Guitar solos in similar time slots on other tracks are celebratory and ruminative, and the idea of comfort comes up elsewhere in its traditionally joyous form. These similarly formatted structures emphasize both the inescapable, sequential nature of time, as well as the endless possibilities for one event or emotion to have an entirely different meaning in the context of someone else’s life.
Also calling attention to imposed structures are the songs’ pronounced intros. Every track begins with a kind of title-card, featuring an instrument or two marching or stumbling into the spotlight and limbering up for the rest of the song to burst into life. It parodies the anxious fervor of new beginnings, scrutinizing our preparedness, and showing up anyway. Similarly most of these tracks have a defined outro that lands on notes of shifting tension. One of the more chilling examples of this is how “Low Down” spends most of its runtime creating a carefree, joyful mood, yet the outro unravels into a hushed, slower tempo, led by the still silly trumpet, cooling the mood down very slightly. It ends with a final vocalization, desolate as the last drop of light wrung from an exhausted star, echoing against an endless void, feeling like the crash-tested halflife of a friendship on the decline. “Pot of Gold Blues” is just the opposite with a surprising, understated outro compared to what we might expect for the album closer, smirking at the grandiosity associated with finales.
Drawing attention to time markers once more, Bendy gives us pointed transitional moments between verses and choruses. These exaggerated section shifts are flamboyant and self-aware at the same time, using brevity and dramatic tempo shifts to wink at the listener. Sometimes they come in an evolving series, like the moments leading into the chorus of “One Day.” The first two lead-ins are exaggerated “level-up” sounds, resembling the animation you’d see when gaining power in a video game, and the last few notes of a guitar solo bring us the last lead-in with a final flourish that feels like an “a-ha” moment. On “Low Down,” Bendy uses these moments to pat the song’s hair back into shape before he launches back in.
Bendy also upholds history itself as a trove of human solidarity and intrigue across time. “A Man, A Plan, A Canal, Panama” follows Theodore Roosevelt as he tackles the notoriously unaccomplished task of establishing the Panama Canal (technically in 1904, Bendy notes, but sometimes rhyming “1903” out-ranks writing in the exact year). The song’s breathless pace and repetitive melody resemble a cycle, like the many fruitless attempts in the canal’s past, while also mirroring cultural memory itself, as present-day societies revisit history over and over again. It salutes the back-breaking work and personal risk asked of folks to fulfill the dreams of their era, and the bedrock of rich history they created for future generations. This is the album’s only song presented as a pure story, separate from Bendy, and it’s a living example of the irrepressible jolt you get when you connect with an age that happened decades outside of your personal timeline.
“Pot of Gold Blues” brings it home as Bendy cautions against the future-enabled doubt that we’re incomplete, that we can only accept ourselves once we cross some arbitrary threshold of arrival once we’ve done this, or once we have that. “Everybody’s searching for their pot of gold,” he sings, equating the weight of our imagined future brilliance with a fabled end of all concern. Throughout The Essence of Time, Bendy reassures us that even though these jagged strings of moments are surreal, sprawling, unreliable guides to ourselves, we have chances to learn for ourselves what hurts and what helps.