Oberst rose to popularity in the early aughts as the front man of Bright Eyes, a soul-baring indie-rock act
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March 16, 2017

In the mid-‘oos, when a strain of rock known as indie seized America’s hipper enclaves, the parameters of the genre were celebrated on the web by the blog Pitchfork and onstage by bands like Spoon, the Shins and Bright Eyes, the project of Conor Oberst. The Nebraska-born singer-songwriter retired the band in the early 2010s but still delivers elliptically confessional lyrics in a trembling voice. James Mercer, the last remaining original member of Albuquerque, N.M.–spawned band the Shins, has a winsome voice that especially shines amid crunchy melodies. Spoon, who hail from Austin, have a winking cool that makes their flinty songs delectably inscrutable, even when they incorporate big horns and crashing pianos.

This month, all three acts are releasing new albums. Oberst’s Salutations (March 17) is a sequel to his sparse November release Ruminations, which featured acerbic lyrics over bare-bones instrumentation. Here he adds seven new tracks and shrouds those tales of anxiety and desperation in warmth, courtesy of a rotating cast of musicians anchored by New York country-rock outfit the Felice Brothers. This album might deal in subjects identical to its predecessor’s, but the albums’ titles reflect their contrasting vibes–Ruminations is about poring over images from the past, while Salutations brings them into the light.

The Shins’ new album, Heartworms (March 10), works on a grander scale, with ornate sonic tableaux that bring to mind the supersize musical worlds of bands like Supertramp and Jellyfish. Mercer’s whooping zeal gives power-pop nightmare fantasias like the song “Painting a Hole” extra urgency; “Cherry Hearts” finds Mercer protesting that he’s “a practical guy,” but the frantic keyboards point to the roiling feelings he has about someone whom he drunkenly smooched. More subdued tracks like the strummy “Mildenhall” provide a break from the sugar rush.

There’s a distinctly more grownup vibe on Spoon’s Hot Thoughts (March 17). The band gets sexy on tracks like the cavernous dance-floor exploration “Pink Up” and the punchy post-disco “Shotgun.” Classic pop ideals still persist: the swaggering “First Caress” glides along on a piano line that recalls Billy Joel’s charging keyboards on “My Life,” while “Tear It Down” is loose-limbed, complete with a na-na-na-ing bridge. These are after-dark explorations undertaken in thrilling ways.

Rock as a genre took a hard hit during the music industry’s early-millennium meltdown, a by-product of Top 40’s dismissal of the form. The disconnect between critical favorites like these three bands and less-cool chart stalwarts, and rock radio’s increasing reliance on tried-and-true classic rockers, only grew. But these three albums, all of which feature long-running acts expanding their sonic palettes and jolting their listeners’ expectations, show how the genre’s exile in the wilderness has made its individual practitioners much stronger. In the streaming era, indie rock may not be as cool as it used to be–but it’s not dead yet.

CONOR OBERST SALUTATIONS

Poignant with fleshed-out sounds

SPOON HOT THOUGHTS

Slick and buoyed by sharp hooks

THE SHINS HEARTWORMS

Cozy synth-rock with big production

This appears in the March 27, 2017 issue of TIME.

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