Look no further than the array of Staind “firsts” that earmark the new release: It’s the first album where guitarist Mike Mushok solos, as well as the first where he wrote and recorded on a standard guitar, rather than his customary baritone. Despite the band’s heralded run of ten Top 10 hits at radio – including four No. 1 singles – it’s the first time that they have recorded a song that they almost feel can be classified as a pop song, and it is also the first time that frontman Aaron Lewis has taken a political stance lyrically. On that same lyrical front, Mushok is proud to point out, with a laugh, that “consciously, I don’t think Aaron says the word ‘pain’ once throughout the record!”
Make no mistake, Lewis still feels the torment and anguish that, in many ways (and often unfairly), became Staind’s trademark as they rose to prominence to become one of the biggest rock bands of the new millennium, but The Illusion Of Progress boasts a lyrical maturity and songwriting aptitude matched only by the band’s musical depth and insatiable desire to get better and better with each release. “When you finish a record, you have to feel like it’s the best job you’ve ever done and they are the best songs you’ve ever written – if you don’t feel that way, then you didn’t do your job and your job isn’t done,” says Mushok. “We think this album is a big step for us. Both lyrically and musically, it’s a little bit of a departure.”
A departure maybe, but only in the sense that it propels Staind’s evolution to heights they have only hinted at on previous releases. While the humble Lewis readily admits that the lead single, “Believe,” is in line with everything fans have come to expect from Staind over the past decade, even he can’t deny the sense of optimism that shines through the track’s musical familiarity and vulnerability. “It’s definitely there,” he says of the album’s more upbeat lyrical tenor. “It’s a different timeframe in my life, and it is what it is.” Adds Mushok, “Aaron and the band have always taken a rap for being dark and gloomy, and it would be nice to try and get away from that – songs like ‘All I Want’ and ‘Believe’ are ways of doing that, hopefully.”
With “All I Want,” Staind’s future shines brighter than any hit single in their catalog. “It was completely unintentional, but we wrote our first pop song,” grins Mushok about the track, which soars on the wings of his engaging guitar melodies, Lewis’s rich, heartfelt vocals, and the band’s harmonious spirit. There’s not another song on the album like it, and not another song in the band’s bevy of hits that comes close to its infectious catch and release. “There was a conscious effort on that song to stretch and do something that people might not expect from Staind,” says Lewis, with Mushok adding that “it’s definitely one of the most upbeat songs that we’ve ever had!”
At the opposite extreme, “The Corner” is one of the most emotionally haunting and musically jarring songs of Staind’s career. “That song gives me goose bumps,” the guitarist says with a sedated satisfaction. “It’s one of those songs that could draw a tear or two.” Atop a blues-seeped musical foundation reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s “Great Gig In The Sky” in both texture and depth, Lewis is backed by a gospel choir, his revenant vocals elevated to ethereal heights.
The frontman’s favorite track is “Pardon Me,” a stunning blend of his dire vocals and the band’s rapturous music. “It always happens that the songs that are my favorites are the songs that are never even going to be thought of as a single. My six-year-old daughter heard ‘Pardon Me’ twice, and she was singing all the words.” While he modestly claims that the band “just tried to write good songs, like we always do,” Lewis does attribute “Pardon Me” to an unsuspected marriage of inspirations: “It’s just a classic, blues-based rock tune, like Led Zeppelin, it’s got that classic ‘Babe I’m Gonna Leave You’ feel.” The lyrics? “For real, nursery rhymes! That song is just where I’m at right now. I’m not going to say necessarily who I’m talking to or what I’m talking about, but there are definitely double meanings to a lot of the things on the album.”
Paramount to Staind’s development on The Illusion Of Progress is producer Johnny K [3 Doors Down, Disturbed, Avenged Sevenfold], who both Mushok and Lewis credit with helping nurture their creativity without impeding their artistry. “He knows how to stimulate you creatively to dig further to come up with cooler stuff,” says Lewis. “He was motivating in that sense, poking and prodding in a way that was acceptable, whereas some of the poking and prodding in the past has had the opposite effect.” It also helped that the bulk of the album was recording in Lewis’s home studio, a converted barn, with the drums done in the band’s Springfield, MA rehearsal studio. “We had the two studios set up, and he would work between the two studios almost every day,” says Mushok. “When you have your own place and you’re doing it your own way, there are no time constraints. Of course you want to get it done, but it drags on a bit more. We might have spent a few weeks more than we needed to on the album, but that’s why it sounds like it does. We’d spend five hours trying to find the right tone for a guitar part, because we had that luxury, then it would take me five minutes to lay the part down.”
From the jazzy refuge and airy, blissful bounce of “Lost Along The Way,” through the acoustic beauty of Lewis’s solo “Tangled Up In You,” and into the politically charged anti-anthem and closing track, “Rainy Day Parade,” the varying tones and sonic explorations on The Illusion Of Progress are the work of a band that are not only hitting their stride as musicians, but also discovering a lavish chemistry together.
As can be said for all the songs on The Illusion Of Progress , don’t make the mistake of taking the album’s title at face value. Everything you know about Staind isn’t wrong; it’s just been rediscovered. Things are about to get a lot more interesting.