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Compositionally perceptive and expressively captivating within a conventional form of songwriting, Katatonia's melancholy and increasingly accessible music has reached a new level of confidence and expressive possibility on Last Fair Deal Gone Down, an album which takes a few cautious chances to subtly expand the band's relatively simplistic formula while maintaining the defining characteristics of the musical concept initiated on 1998's Discouraged Ones.
"my prospects have become less promising
i find it hard to believe in anything
seems I lost my world and so I lost my faith
and I can't go back to where I've been"
In the pop-music tradition of verse/chorus form, these songs offer a variety of alterations to that design much in the way previous album Tonight's Decision established, but with the track to track consistency in expressive impact and thoughtful arrangement which that effort ultimately failed to deliver, relating more in its sequential flow to the unified feel of Discouraged Ones, though with an attentive and inventive application of texture through subtle layering of musical elements, some of which are new to the Katatonia sound-world, such as the vague electronic nuances tastefully applied to songs like album opener "Dispossession" and the somewhat peculiar and slightly disturbing "We Must Bury You".
Though there is considerable sonic weight to this music, which has received a hefty and dynamic production on this album, the style continues to develop away from the band's doom metal roots. It is closer to identifying with darker, more atmospheric styles of alternative rock music, like a heavier version of The Cure's Disintegration merged with a bleaker take on shoegaze and indie rock-style introspective singer/songwriter music.
"will the street lights reflect me well enough
am I transparent when I am clean
will the darkness around me be so strong
that there is no way I can be seen"
The guitarists continue to expand in the realm of ambient texture as well as expressive diversity, using six-string chords towards an increasingly imaginative approach to formulating dark yet engaging riffs and melodic leads, with an abundance of intelligently applied effects treatments to flesh out the atmospheric sound-picture, particularly evident in "Sweet Nurse" and "The Future of Speech". But what really advances the band's music in the areas of structural flexibility and variety is the addition of an actual established rhythm section in the form of bassist Mattias Norrman and powerful, inventive drummer Daniel Liljekvist, who unite to provide a serious sense of urgency and underlying power to Katatonia's music the likes of which it has not enjoyed previously, while bringing a new sense of musical possibility that has clearly boosted the confidence level of the songwriters.
Another significant improvement comes in the form of Jonas Renkse's singing, which is as emotive and severely despondent as ever, but considerably more consistent in expressive potency and tone than his uneven performance on Tonight's Decision. His depressed melodies are better defined in harmonized arrangements while successfully exploring a wider range of tones, including higher tones of emotional conviction that express a different side of desperation and anxiety without sounding forced or out of context.
"I live 'cause I need more light
I hope I can change today"
Last Fair Deal Gone Down, while every bit as melancholic and artistically dark as previous releases, is an album defined by its stimulating instances of genuine development within the band's established aesthetic, a solid effort displaying a moderate quality of maturity while remaining a recognizable Katatonia work, which, while not as immediate as past efforts due to the degree of musical expansion and expressive variety, subtle as it may be, further affirms this band's standing as a highly individual and emotionally genuine prospect in the musical field of brooding, atmospheric rock music. As they have grown as individuals, their music has gradually crawled out from the nocturnal graveyards into the alienated urban settings that is the active landscape of distressed adulthood, resulting in a less overtly sorrowful musical character, manifesting a more distantly perceptive and examined approach to thematic investigations of experience. The empty late-night streets of the sleeping city have become more intimately influential to the band's conceptual observations, awakening a desperate sense of longing to break free from the miseries and anxieties of adolescent isolation, as opposed to the imaginative indulging in such conditions that characterized much of their earlier material. The music remains discouraged and embraced by darkness because there is still stark despair in that hope for change, and while Katatonia left their fantasy and mystery behind in the midnight cemeteries, their self-awareness and existential perspective has developed in a somewhat more pragmatic, modern sense of social detachment that arises from a reluctant engagement with society that comes with the obligations of adulthood.