Toad the Wet Sprocket “Dulcinea” Review

The cryptically named Dulcinea (named after a character in Don Quixote) seems to correct Toad’s trajectory from where they left off in Pale.  It might have been a reaction to the overtly lush and known-to-be-more-optimistic-than-it-is Fear,  which, despite its success, seems like a slight detour in the hindsight.  More idiosyncratic with darker edges pushed forefront, Toad seems to be conveying here that they, and the life as they know it, are a lot messier than their recent hit singles.  There are a number of fan favorites here, but these songs reach into deeper, more somber places in one’s psyche.

“Fall Down” is the stand-out single of this collection and is a good representation of where their head was this time around.  Uncharacteristically fast and aggressive, this concise ode to a girl/woman full of desperation, loathing and chaos hits its listener with panic-like urgency.  Toad is known as a fairly sedate act, but this is a far cry from the pastoral bliss of “All I Want” or “I Will Not Take These Things for Granted.”   Equally hallowed is downcast “Something’s Always Wrong” which takes the prize for being the most relatable title for everyone but the most ardent optimists.   It’s still down-to-earth, it’s still very everyman, but this time around Glen Phillips is not bothering to look at the glass as half full.

Heavy sentiments fill other corners as well,”Fly from Heaven” is an understated opener to this bleaker domain.  Dramatic and tragic, the song has a history of eliciting strong fan reactions thanks to its religious/spiritual questions and yearning.  “Woodburning” follows, slashing its way with fury and frustration.  “Inside” is another conflicted rocker, a locked-up soul’s cry for freedom delivered by the guitarist Todd Nichol’s breathy voice.

And when the dark songs hit so profoundly, other experiments have a hard-time fitting in.     Sandwiched between heavy-hitters, a couple of haphazard attempts at humor,”Stupid” and “Nanci,” come across as awkward and out of place.  Which is too bad, because taken on their own they have their own charms — they may have been more at home with their unabashedly odd-ball collection In Light Syrup.  On the other hand, “Begin” is so morose and slow that it loses that cathartic uplift that most of their other unhappy songs deliver.  And “The Reincarnation Song” could have been a majestic show closer but their penchant for quirkiness must have gotten the better of the them — instead of building to a moving climax the audience is left scratching their head at Glen’s loony vocal delivery.

Among these downers and misfits, Toad did insert one transcendentally soothing song “Windmills.”  Positioned at the square middle of the collection, it offers a welcome respite from the Sturm und Drang.  Languid and ethereal, the Quixotic reference of the album title anchors this elegiac little parable, instructing us to stop trying too hard — instead, trust and wait.

“There’s something that you won’t show
Waiting where the light goes
And anyway the wind blows
It’s all worth waiting for”

Almost buried amidst the dense confusion and intense discontent, “Windmills” is like that brief moment of clarity in which you glimpse the lesson of life that you were missing the whole time.

Taken as a whole, Dulcinea may be the more honest representation of the world according to Toad the Wet Sprocket.  It doesn’t all fit neatly and certainly doesn’t end well, but the anguish and uneasiness that fill the air seem all so familiar, so 3D in their life-like-ness.  There are more questions and mysteries than answers here, made all the more bare by the rawer and more stripped-down production compared to that of the glossier predecessor.  Truth be told, Toad’s never been about cheeky little pop ditties, even if they accidentally became known for tunes that represent their hopeful side.  If you came in to their world lured by the poppy assurance of “All I Want” and “Good Intentions,” brace yourself for the more sinister shade that awaits in this album.  It’s a bumpy ride, but those who dig in will be richly rewarded.