When confronted with the sum of the Rentals’ Songs About Time project (four albums, 52 short films and a metric shit-ton of photographs all somehow tying back into the passage of time), it becomes clear that Matt Sharp is insane. I think he’s a genius, but dude could've easily just dropped a third full-length under the Rentals moniker and I would have been fine with that. Instead, he spent 2009 releasing movies, EPs and photos at a breakneck pace online. After a couple of production delays, the entire project is finally available physically via a boxed set. Coupled with 12 bonus tracks, as well as a soundtrack to all of the films, Songs About Time is an epic mess. The asking price is a bit steep ($125. $275 gets you an even bigger set with vinyl and undeveloped film from the Photographs About Days portion), but there’s enough material presented to validate the set for hardcore fans. Newbies would be better off with the digital download, though.
Photographs About Days is the most consistently rewarding section. Every day, Sharp shot a roll of film, then put a photo up online. That’s about 14,000 pictures. A hand-bound book comes in the set with 52 prints of Sharp’s strongest pictures, although the entire 365 run can be viewed on the accompanying Films About Weeks DVD. Both the photos and films are in black and white, which suits Sharp’s style.
Less successful is the Films About Weeks DVD. Fifty-two films is a hell of a lot of material, and for the first half of the DVD, they amount to little more than behind-the-scenes footage. Occasionally the band whips up a quick story, but more frequently it’s just shots of them recording. The series was broken up into three seasons, each with a different language (Japanese, then Spanish, then French), essentially taking the concept behind the “Friends of P” video and stretching it across a year. Sometime around July, the videos start to improve--the cinematography gets a little more ambitious, stories start to evolve. But it takes such a long time to get to that point that most folks will probably tune out by then.
The portion that could have stood on its own, with perhaps a bit of editing, is the Songs About Time set. Originally released as three EPs online, each EP is now supplemented with four bonus tracks, while a fourth disc, Tokyo Blues, provides the soundtrack from Films About Weeks. Even with the bonus material, the EPs’ quality remains the same: The Story of a Thousand Seasons Past is still the best; The Future is still the worst. Story contains the biggest hooks (“Song of Remembering”) and the most emotional songs (“Seven Years,” “All I Have”). The bonus tracks are likewise catchy, and come closest to harkening back to the Rentals of yesteryear--pounding drums, ringing synths, a heavy bottom. It’s Time to Come Home gets a bit schmaltzier, but that works to the group’s advantage on the French version of “Late Night Confessions.” Where the band falls apart is on the barely-there third disc, The Future. The songs are too thinly sketched out, and the use of a children’s choir to fill in the songs is kind of laughable. Tokyo Blues is a little more successful, isolating individual movements from the series and recasting them as scores for Films About Weeks. It’s good background music.
Songs About Time is ambitious to a fault. There’s enough good material presented that I no longer regret paying the $125 price tag (then again, I also pre-ordered it over a year ago). But it ultimately could have been a decent full-length. Cut out the excess footage and songs, and there could have been a great 12-track album with maybe a bonus video or two instead. I respect Sharp and co. for approaching this project, but it’s so inconsistent and expensive that only the most fervent members of the Rentals cult may be up to the task of processing all of this material.