Astronautalis has never given himself over to easy identification, and yet his albums have all had at least two fairly consistent qualities. One—they've carried an incredibly broad range of musical styles. Two—they tend to incorporate historical narratives. Oftentimes the result is a great success, but sometimes it spins too far off and the entire album may suffer as a result. 2008’s Pomegranate featured both the best (“Trouble Hunters”; “Two Years Before the Mast”) and the worst (“17 Summers”; “An Episode of Sparrows”) of these trademarks. That isn't to say the songs are bad, but they often jar the flow of the album and lend themselves to being skipped. With This Is Our Science, Astronautalis produces his first fully autobiographical work that manages to hem in and focus his musical stylings (though not too much). What you’re left with is the most passionate and focused work of not only one of the most talented rappers—but lyricists—currently making music.
At its core, This Is Our Science could be described as a hip-hop album. It has beats, and Astronautalis typically has a vocal delivery that could be described as rapping. But making such a blanket statement is more than selling this record short—it’s doing it a genuine disservice. Musically, This Is Our Science takes parts of blues (“Thomas Jefferson”), indie (“Measure the Globe”), R&B (“Midday Moon”), and even gospel. It’s the sort of genre blending that most artists talk about that often results in either a rock band mistakenly using a rapper for one song (think Bad Religion's “Let Them Eat War”) or a rapper using rock riffs (think Lil Wayne's Rebirth) or worse, Limp Bizkit. This Is Our Science is an actual fusion of musical styles that comes together with the energy of a modern tent revival (without the talking in tongues...well, maybe).
No tent revival would be complete without a fiery preacher at the forefront, and Astronautalis fills this role with undeniable ease and skill. Astronautalis doesn't just rap—he guides the direction of the album/revival, controlling the content, directing the choir and getting the attendees to stand up and shout when directed. This isn't simply rapping—this is a sermon and it’s delivered as such. Astronautalis raps like a man touched by something he can’t quite understand. His message is impassioned, desperate at times. He pulls all the best passages from his hymnal, uses every vocal maneuver he has and melds them together with the dedication of a master orator, just to make you understand. Lines like, “Tell me this / put up your finger tips / if you’re living your life exactly how you wished. / And for the rest of us, with our hands on our hips / our work is never done, we are Sisyphus” highlight the best of Astronautalis’ ability, while using a sort of “bait and switch” of a hip-hop tradition (“put your hands in the air”) to demonstrate an unwillingness to be complacent.
When not firing off impassioned rap, Astronautalis does everything from crooning to wailing like a man on fire (this is a good thing). “Thomas Jefferson” features Astronautalis and Mike Wiebe (of Riverboat Gamblers) hollering out over screaming guitars, sounding like a man at last call torn between suicide and revenge. Meanwhile, the subtly sung opening of “Lift the Curse” finds Astronautalis in the common—and unfortunate—situation of ending up in self-reflection during the dying hours of a party (and is not unreminiscent of Against Me!’s “T.S.R.”). These shifts in vocal delivery and style could easily have morphed into something unwieldy (or even corny), but in Astronautalis’ skilled hands, they merely become multiple sides of one, expansive personality.
This Is Our Science is, without a doubt, the strongest, most cohesive release Astronautalis has put out to date, and the quality he has hinted at since 2005’s You and Yer Good Ideas. It’s the lyrical content he’s capable of, with the musical stylings he loves, and it’s tempered with enough restraint to keep it focused and cohesive. It’s the kind of record that can make you want to sit and drink whiskey alone all night, flip through old photo books, or pack everything you own into a bag, move and start anew over night, all within the course of a song. This Is Our Science may end up being more than the best work Astronautalis has done—it may be one of the best of the year.