The members of Elf Power have always had a fondness for fantasy. Since forming the band nearly 20 years ago in Athens, Ga., frontman Andrew Rieger and multi-instrumentalist Laura Carter have searched for truth and meaning in imaginary worlds, spinning vast mythologies about magical lands, emerald trees, secret oceans and melting castles made of ice. Over the course of a dozen albums, they've introduced a fanciful cast of characters, from the Willowy Man and Naughty Villain to Simon (The Bird With The Candy Bar Head). Elf Power's songs — a mix of Rieger's strangely plaintive voice, sludgy guitars and an array of oddball instrumentation — have made the group one of the most idiosyncratic members of the Elephant 6 Collective, a sprawling family of like-minded, lo-fi rock bands that includes, among others, Neutral Milk Hotel, The Apples In Stereo and The Olivia Tremor Control.
But on Elf Power's latest album, the superbly crafted Sunlight on the Moon, Rieger and company trade fantastical tales of kings and space for brooding introspection. It's a surprisingly dark turn into personal territory from a band long known for its playful, almost magical charm. It's also Elf Power's strongest, most cohesive work in a decade.
Apart from introducing the steady thump of drum machines, Sunlight on the Moon at first doesn't sound that different from the rest of the band's catalog. Fuzzy guitars chug alongside acoustic strums, distressed synths, jangly percussion and curious melodies. But from the opening song, "Transparent Lines," Rieger tells us he's fallen "asleep with all the things that lie down in the dark," and "laid with demons in the night." Each track that follows finds him deep in thought on sleepless nights, as he contemplates lost youth, impending death and his own disillusionment. "I'm writhing in the dark," he sings in "Total Annihilation." "All I see is total annihilation across the land / We drag it along like a chain / and watch as it's grinding away."
It's not clear whether this is a new kind of fiction for Elf Power, or whether Rieger himself is in the midst of an existential crisis. But whatever the motivation, it feels like a natural progression for the group. Elf Power's songs have long been portals leading to worlds of wondrous reflection. Sunlight on the Moon shows Rieger and Carter, now in their early 40s, sounding less playful — but still awestruck by the mysteries of the human experience, and still searching.