"The Pills Stopped Working" is the pinnacle track on Hem’s third studio album, Funnel Cloud. It also effectively kills the album.
Having mastered a lyrical, pastoral style of songwriting, Hem had only one way to challenge itself — write something in a quick tempo.
The two songs sporting this newer, extroverted style — "Too Late to Turn Back Now" and "The Pills Stopped Working" — mark the midpoint of the album. It’s a welcome change the band handles incredibly well.
Too well, in fact.
Funnel Cloud is an album with an identity crisis.
The first half starts off in familiar environs — intimate, ornate songs with beautiful melodies and warm performances. "We’ll Meet Along the Way" opens the album with a haunting tone, and the minimal lyrics feel deeply rooted in the past.
"Not California" is the best track on the album, sporting a chorus that’s just plain gorgeous. "He Came to Meet Me" is trademark Hem, while the title track, despite it’s wonderful orchestration, feels like a dud.
Then Hem breaks out of the mold with such a vigor, they almost sound like an entirely different band.
"Too Late to Turn Back Now" could have been a classic Emmylou Harris track, circa Pieces of the Sky.
But "The Pills Stopped Working" could stand toe-to-toe with anything off of Tift Merrit’s Tambourine. It’s a direction Hem ought to explore seriously in the future.
Having proven itself with an extroverted performance, the rest of the album feels pale by comparrison. The lyricism and intimacy lose their appeal.
It also doesn’t help that the tracks themselves aren’t the same stunners as "Not California" and "We’ll Meet Along the Way".
"Great Houses of New York" and "Curtains" dip too deeply into sentimentality, while "The Burnt-Over District" can’t even pass itself off as second-rate Aaron Copland.
"I’ll Dream of You Tonight" lifts the album up for a brief moment, but by then, Funnel Cloud had stopped being interesting.
If the band managed to pursue the more extroverted writing, perhaps Funnel Cloud would have been an incredibly bold creative statement. Peppered with "Not California" and the better slow tracks, the album could have offered the best of both worlds.
Or Hem could have just stuck to its previous modus operandi and given more the same beautiful, lush music only it can provide.
Funnel Cloud, unfortunately, attempts to be a bit of everything and ends up canceling itself out. There are a lot of good ideas on the album but not enough focus to follow through with them.