The Rentals have always been an amalgamation: a band cobbled together from members of other bands, with a lineup that changed with each album, centered around frontman Matt Sharp, formerly the bassist of Weezer in their earlier days. Sharp left Weezer after Pinkerton (1996), and focused on the Rentals, releasing first Return of the Rentals (1995), and then 1999’s Seven More Minutes, which was about time he spent in Spain with a significant other. But the Rentals dissipated for several years after that album, coming back together in 2005 to release some smaller projects, like the multimedia Songs About Time (2009). Lost in Alphaville is the band’s third album and the first full-length since 1999, and it’s got a shiny new lineup to match: Patrick Carney of the Black Keys, Ryen Slegr of Ozma, Lauren Chipman of Section Quartet, and Holly Laessig and Jess Wolfe of Lucius on vocals.
Despite the prestige of its cast, Lost in Alphaville falls flat. The album was intended as a return to Seven More Minutes, a revisitation of that album’s people, places and emotions, as the opening track “It’s Time to Come Home” might suggest. But Lost in Alphaville feels, well, lost—hovering in some distant limbo, unsure where it’s going, inert and a bit hesitant. “It’s Time to Come Home” attempts to engage the listener with a big, epic sound, starting with shivering, distorted bassy guitar tones and eerie breathing, until the synths come crashing in, rocking and swaying. It may be bombastic, but it’s nothing special.
The rest of the album continues in much the same way, with shiny pop-rock melodies and youthful energy, perhaps due in part to Carney’s enthusiastic percussion. “Traces of Our Tears,” with its beating drums and synths and duetting male/female vocals, almost sounds like Stars, but there’s a lyrical simplicity here that belies that comparison. “We’re traveling through the atmosphere / moving through the vanished years,” Laessig and Wolfe sing, giving the first hint of the album’s rather tired space travel theme.
The songs on Lost in Alphaville don’t add much to discussions about love or life, lyrically or musically. “Stardust,” about the ephemerality of flings and human life in general, almost sounds a bit immature, as does the spacey “Damaris” and “Thought of Sound” (where we hear the exhausted cliche, “you are as free as a sunset”). Other tracks are just simple, generic pop, like “Irrational Things” and “Seven Years,” which tries to salvage its uniqueness with a few synths and a little piano bridge, but it’s not really enough to help.
The album edges toward something more worthwhile on its closing track, “The Future,” which is a little less formulaic than the preceding tracks, experimenting with different rhythms and tempos, adding more effects. Maybe the Rentals are coming into their own here, if they forsake the recipe-driven pop of the rest of the album. Lost in Alphaville is hung up on the past, in many ways, and maybe what the Rentals really need to do, as the closing track implies, is look to the future.