When they pegged studio legend Glyn Johns to helm 2012's Mirage Rock, Band of Horses underwent a bit of retooling to ignite some latent rock spark, while still offering enough mainstream appeal to sustain them at Columbia Records. While not an overwhelming critical success, the album's easy-riding country-rock vibes were enough to vault it into a significant Top 20 placing on Billboard's pop chart. For their follow-up, 2016's Why Are You OK, they hand over the keys to a less-proven and more experimentally oriented captain in Grandaddy frontman Jason Lytle. Along with this sonic shift comes a new partnership with Interscope and American Recordings, offering a change of scenery and a bit of gentle guidance from American honcho -- and executive producer -- Rick Rubin. Tonally, Why Are You OK is a different animal than its predecessor, often placing frontman Ben Bridwell's warm exaltations within the pseudo-synthetic context of droning synth layers and effects-laden atmospherica. Album opener "Dull Times/The Moon" is a slow-building seven-minute opus whose dreamy space-crawl eventually gives way to a typhoon of heavy distorted guitars. Gentle synths and the scuffed sound of an old drum machine thread throughout the catchy, J Mascis-aided "In a Drawer," building into swirling layers of harmony and textured guitars. There's even a spaced-out Lytle-penned instrumental that acts as a sort of mid-album interlude. Lyrically, themes of encroaching middle age and the contentment of family life provide much of the album's emotional arc, and while it would be easy to accuse Bridwell of descending into the musical comfort zone that often gets unfairly labeled as "dad rock," he's writing from an honest place about the life he's living. Twelve years into their career, Band of Horses are a recognizable, well-established touring act whom Bridwell has shepherded from humble Seattle origins to quite respectable heights. Maybe they're not a household name, but by most bands' standards, these guys have made it. While certainly not complacent, they do seem to lack some of the hunger of their Sub Pop years and the broad scope of their Grammy-nominated Infinite Arms LP. Lytle's riskier production is a nice bonus and there are some strong standouts like the hooky lead single "Casual Party" and guitarist Tyler Ramsey's breezy "Country Teen," but as a whole, Why Are You OK isn't quite as memorable a set as they've proven capable of delivering.
AllMusic Review by Timothy Monger