Though Physical Therapy is the first official release to bear Martin Crane’s name in bright, bold letters, it’s not exactly the momentous solo venture that it seems. Crane’s band Brazos, which he’s most recognized for, was primarily his own operation, with enlisted help of friends like bassist Spencer Zahn and percussionist Ian Chang—who, as it turns out, continue to provide sizable contributions on Therapy. Crane’s last release under his previous group, 2013’s Saltwater, inched its way towards pop-ification but didn’t seem ready to fully commit. So, in effect, Physical Therapy is the natural next step for the veteran musician, smartly billed under Crane’s own name to mark a complete evolution into unabashed pop territory.
The new material hits the mark at first beat. Opening track “Angela’s House,” an ebullient instrumental ditty, is one of the record’s most appealing numbers. It establishes the rest of the project’s tone wonderfully, building on a catchy, almost tropical xylophone riff with industrial electronic percussion and angelic vocal emulations—it’s at once warmly inviting but coldly felt, with a spiritual slant that becomes a through-line for the whole album. Another standout, “Lights Out,” has a wonderful textural depth that makes it feel almost tactile—it’s a shag carpet, sexy and complex, and yet its skittering electronic components give it an icy, steely sheen.
This push and pull is an obvious product of Crane’s approach to the album’s recording: it was done once with live backing, and a second time entirely solo on Ableton. The two versions were mixed together to yield positively intriguing results pretty much across the board. “Physical Therapy” is another tropically-infused track with a sax riff that hints at Dev Hynes, while “Gunk of Stars” is an aptly-titled, shimmering banger that effectively implements the trap leanings of today’s Top-40 landscape. Crane’s work sometimes recalls Nate Ruess at his best, though Thomas Mars also occasionally comes to mind, particularly with mid-album highlight “Gadesco,” which would find itself perfectly at home in a Sofia Coppola film.
Lyrically, Crane waxes reverent, almost preachy at times. Some lines are particularly on-the-nose, like “The dream life is waiting just to give you gifts / 'Cause there's so much time left beyond the deepest blues” from “Lights Out,” or, from “Physical Therapy,” "Someone is standing outside here and they are looking into you / You'd better lose your illusions ‘fore your illusions lose for you.” Though they aim for a weighty significance, they don’t really stick the landing and end up being one of the album’s main stumbling blocks.
But what Martin Crane’s plainspoken faith doesn’t accomplish, his music does: Physical Therapy is an album that sounds intricately rich and imparts genuine happiness. His production and his playfulness are his greatest strengths, and with this new project he deftly makes pop trends du jour sound gorgeous and new again.