I once thought that the review I penned of Down By Law’s last album was the toughest I would ever have to write; I tried to recuse myself from the start on that one due to my personal association with the guys in the band but that one flew about as well as a dead seagull. Now this. When I revived my zine after a hiatus of several years, Hot Water Music was the first band that I interviewed. They were one of the bands that made me realize that something existed beyond shitty, third-generation Bad Religion and NOFX ripoffs that wasn’t Crass or Bay Area pop punk. It was raw, complex, heartfelt, sincere—it just flat out fucking killed me. It took me a while to get it—I had to spend some time with Fuel for the Hate Game and Forever and Counting. I had to open my ears a little more, expand my idea of what music might and could be. I can’t even count how many times I’ve listened to them now, how many times I’ve played those songs on the radio in the middle of the night. When A Flight and a Crash rolled around and polarized HWM’s fan base, I got that album too. Even though I could understand why people were pissed about that record, I couldn’t agree with them because I still heard the things in it that made me fall in love with the band—it wasn’t a replica of an earlier album; instead, they pulled off at a rest area, gave some directions about how to get to the next stop on the musical journey and took off without looking back to see who followed. Then Caution dropped and, once again, plugged into a void in my life. I can’t even count how many times I’ve listened to “Trusty Chords” now, but I had it on repeat for something on the order of five weeks. And now it’s past one a.m. and I can’t tell if I simply don’t have any more voids left to fill or if this album is as much of a letdown as I fear it is. Maybe it’s that I’ve matured past the music… but I don’t think that’s true because I fucking hate Michelle Branch and think the Shikari disc in my player is one of the most awesome things I’ve heard this year. Maybe it’s the circumstances I’m in right now—for once, I’m relatively settled. I’m employed, in a good relationship… things are going pretty well for me, so maybe it’s the comparative lack of conflict and struggle… except that can’t be it either because I’m gearing up for a four-year fight and HWM’s old albums are the perfect soundtrack for it. What I’m increasingly left with is that this album isn’t so much of a stylistic advance or musical experimentation as it is a puzzling detour into relatively flat, uninteresting territory—sort of like driving across the Midwest with nothing more than a thermos of coffee and a tape that is only sort of okay to keep you company. Sure, on the surface it seems superficially similar. There are still two guitars, the rhythm section is still one of the best ones in punk, but something is missing. The songs seem slower, more moderately paced; they seem more conventional and restrained. Whereas older albums frequently sounded like the band was pushing to break through some unseen and unperceived barrier that only they could recognize, this album sounds like they took a breather, almost as if these songs were written from a template that the band developed years ago or an equation that returned tracks from the values they entered. Hell, even Scott Sinclair’s artwork looks radically different for this record. Sure, there are some great moments—”Ink and Lead” is as good a love song as they’ve ever written, “Giver” closes out the album in a classic Hot Water Music stop-and-go breakdown mode, and “The End of the Line” is yet another moment of solace for fans who are lonely, feeling out of control, or who need to open up and experience something new… or maybe all of the above. The problem is that these redemptive moments, the handful of soaring, swelling, transcendent guitar lines which make the world seem better, if only for a moment, are dramatically fewer in number this time; while everything that initially drew me to Hot Water Music is still present, it’s muted, subdued and in limited quantities. But hey, we all grow up, right? We all get older. I’ve come to the realization over the years that my affection for and appreciation of some bands will last forever; other bands are more like passengers on the same plane or bus or train—maybe we exchange a few friendly words while we wait to leave, we travel together for a while and maybe realize that other people feel similarly or even the same as we do right now and we feel better for a while. However, no trip lasts forever. Sooner or later, someone has to change direction and while that may mean that we part ways—perhaps only temporarily—it doesn’t mean that we can’t remember and celebrate the good time we had together.