Underlying every great record, every career-defining work of art, is a certain ineffable, increasingly rarified quality: unity of vision. Great songs need not announce their greatness: their marriage of idea with action, soul with sound, appears as something which is naturally effortless, unforced—they are what they are because they have no choice but to be. On Playing Favorites, Sheer Mag’s third full length and first with Third Man Records, this precise, matured clarity of vision is put on full display. Over the course of the past decade, Sheer Mag have labored to carve out a discernibly singular position within the canon of contemporary rock: toggling with ease between the refined flourishes of a “connoisseur’s band” and the ecstatic colloquialism of populist songwriting—yet displaying no strict loyalty to either camp—their sound, while oft-referenced, is unmistakably and immediately recognizable as theirs alone. With Playing Favorites, Sheer Mag have capitalized on a decade’s worth of devotion to their own collective spirit—a spirit refined in both the sweaty trenches of punk warehouses and the larger-than-life glamour of concert halls—emerging with a dense work of gripping emotions, massive hooks, and masterfully constructed power-pop anthems. This is the record the Philadelphian rock and roll four-piece has always been destined to make.
Playing Favorites expands with a sense of undeniable vitality, buoyed by rock and roll’s singular capacity to channel a relentless compassion for human life. While at times marked by an intensified sense of melancholy, this newest offering takes stock of the confusing flow of daily life without moralizing, refusing to fall into antagonistic cynicism. Sheer Mag leans into the chaotic thrall of city living, of a life subdivided by the jagged highs and lows of bars, parties, and nightlife culture, with sweetly empathetic remove. The chemically-saturated swing of disco rhythms, crooning earnestness of heartland Americana, and boisterous theatrics of capital-G-and-M Guitar Music become strangely familiar bedfellows. This music is complex, not complicated. As lead guitarist Kyle Seely puts it, “I don’t believe people should put on a record and have to work to enjoy it.” Sheer Mag neither pander towards the studied pretensions of the rock historian elite nor dilute their approach into something more blankly palatable to a commercial audience. Instead, they have their eyes set on that ever elusive third option: those who just get it. If you build it, they will come.
Sheer Mag began to work in earnest on their follow up to 2019’s A Distant Call in the summer of 2021, which they originally imagined would take the shape of a tautly constructed 4-song disco EP. As Matt Palmer, the band’s rhythm guitarist and primary lyricist, recollects: “those first four songs came out of a hard moment in life for all of us collectively—they kind of felt like an attempt to figure out how to have fun when you actually feel miserable.” Before long, the band realized this new material would perhaps be better served within the context of a fully fleshed out rock LP, bracketed by the support of a wider array of juxtaposing psychic moods and sonic textures. Over a six-month stretch spanning the fall of 2022 to the winter of 2023, Kyle Seely and his brother Hart Seely (bass) set about tracking the instrumentals for the record, resetting their studio configuration each week in order to impose a more tailored, multi-session atmosphere upon the record’s acoustic landscape. Palmer rejoined vocalist Tina Halladay in Philadelphia the following spring to write and record the vocals for Playing Favorites, which depart rather markedly from the band’s prior material, placing an added emphasis on pronouncedly existential, interpersonal storytelling and ornate background harmonies. Reflecting upon the shift between this newest LP and the band’s previous material, Halladay notes: “those first few records felt like a personal coming out party; they felt like they were an introduction to me and my life story. With these new songs, I feel like I’m finally able to move past that—there are parts on this record that I couldn’t imagine being able to sing ten, five, or even three years ago.”
Playing Favorites burns with a sweetened gratitude for the lot one has been given in life: the luck of coming up punk; the luck of living an unalienated life; the luck of feeling love, and losing love. The title track announces itself with a sense of self-assured swagger, spinning a jubilant tale of life on the road: the band is back together, and they know they’ve never sounded quite this good before. A clamoring gust of socially lubricated bravado weaves its way throughout much of the record, such as on “All Lined Up,” which paints images of late nights (early mornings?) spent amongst possible friends, cigarettes fizzing in the ashtrays and a sense of looming dread curling through the air. Every coin has two sides, of course: the candor of Playing Favorites’ sweeter moments is often balanced by a certain studied sadness, that soft grief of living that negatively lends such brighter moments their seductive allure. “Golden Hour” conjures a softly elegiac longing, evoking images of old photographs which shimmer like the fields of Elysium; “When You Get Back” croons about fantasies of a loving future which may never come.
Sheer Mag have broken significant musical ground with Playing Favorites, elevating their signature approach to rock and roll to lushly cinematic new heights. “Moonstruck,” for instance, lives up to its titular reference of Hollywood-sized surprise romance, spooling out a charming story of desire crossing the liquid boundary that separates innocent crush from deepening love. Playing Favorites’ filmic qualities reach their peak on “Mechanical Garden,” which lurches forth like a three-part fugue, carrying the listener from ripping glam theatrics into a subtly psychedelic, string and drum machine dub interlude, finally resolving upon perhaps the most openly depressive iteration of Sheer Mag’s take on disco-inflected pop, outfitted with a guest guitar solo by Mdou Moctar. The baroque elegance of such moments find their natural counterpoint in the record’s more straightforward power-pop tracks, such as “Don’t Come Looking,” which courses with the chest-filling bravado of a lightly southern-fried Nerves hit, and “Paper Time,” which delivers a type of mad-dash snare-roll catharsis that brings to mind all of the giddy melodrama of the final heist in a Cassavetes movie. Playing Favorites’ greatest achievement, however, is perhaps its unabashed embrace of nakedly emotional, arena-sized choruses, which seem to fizz out of some sort of timeless radio set to the frequency of pure human experience. As Halladay puts it, “Nobody seems to write straight up rock bangers anymore–more than anything else, we want this record to put huge, catchy songwriting front and center.”
Playing Favorites is undoubtedly a record by the same Sheer Mag that audiences of all stripes have spent the last decade falling in love with. In fact, for all of its sonic departures and evolutions, this record is perhaps the most “Sheer Mag” release yet. Not so much a return to form, but rather a realization of those greatest promises that the band has up until now only hinted at. With Playing Favorites, Sheer Mag cater to their tastes and their tastes alone: so long as they continue to do so, the future of rock and roll, that great human tradition, is in the best of hands.