Retrospect: Thrice's 'Artist In The Ambulance' 20 years later
Released 20 years ago in 2003 this album is very much a reflection of the unrest that was pervasive in culture of the time.
Some albums are great in their own time. Some even get better as they age. The select few are the all-time classics. In Retrospect, Lambgoat’s writing staff looks back on the albums that impacted their genre as they reach a certain age.
Thrice are a band that have aged with grace, each album is a slight evolution that feels inevitable and apt to where they are as people and artists. Pluck out any release from their discography and it can immediately transport you to the time when you first heard it, whether that was 15 years ago or just a few short months in the past. Their growth from skatepark punk to introspective post-hardcore has been one of the most fascinating journeys in this space and while we all may have our favorite periods of the band, a few albums from their catalog stand as towering moments that helped shape their career as well as the tastes and journeys of those who listened to them. Couched between The Illusion of Safety and Vheissu is The Artist in the Ambulance, an album that bridges the gap both sonically and lyrically from their more youthful bliss to being more socially and philosophically conscious by viewing the world through a different lens. With diatribes against consumerism trumping philanthropy, existential crises, and of course the title track’s reminiscence of salvation, the topics covered are varied and filled with a youthful disgust for any apathetic response to these issues.
Released 20 years ago in 2003 this album is very much a reflection of the unrest that was pervasive in culture of the time. The terrorist attacks of September 11 were still quite fresh in everyone’s mind, there were major shifts in awareness of the impacts of consumerism, and a war that no one asked was looming. With this as the setting, there’s a palpable sense of ‘question everything’ at play on The Artist in the Ambulance. Within this context there are reaches for sincerity and hopes that others will follow suit. Along with all of this lyrical inspiration the sonic textures that Thrice employ began expanding with more harsh vocals, heavier breakdowns, and a step toward riff-driven songs. This band was evolving right in front of our eyes.
The Artist in the Ambulance brought into being some of the band’s most celebrated songs that make their setlist still to this day. “Silhouette” is one such song that elicits quite a pop during their shows and for a great reason. Incredible vocal melodies lay over punctuated chords and restrained drums that make the whole song feel like it’s holding its breath until it lets the pain out in bursts to keep it from overflowing. The haunting opening of the following track “Stare at the Sun” is another noteworthy moment, the lilting riff taking the song to an almost ironically defiant place where an act of rebellion and audacity is built around hope and sacrifice.
With only one track reaching a length of four minutes, The Artist in the Ambulance is a series of quick hits that feels consistently urgent across its 39 minutes. While Thrice have never been a band to release lengthy records this still stands as one of their quickest, especially when factoring in the total number of songs to the runtime. This coupled with the message of a host of unmet societal expectations makes this album feel especially chaotic. There was clearly a lot on their minds at the time and that makes The Artist in the Ambulance feel in some ways like a ball of energy firing off in a host of directions at the same time. While this doesn’t make for the most cohesive concept for an album, it’s clearly a reflection of the band’s disenchantment with a host of things within themselves as well as the culture that they found themselves in at the time. While railing against these ills isn’t necessarily a novel concept, it's the poetry and artistry with which Thrice deliver these railings that helps set this album apart.
Hardcore often takes on these topics in a more direct way with a no-frills middle finger. Thrice still fly the flag of dissent with their music but don’t take the same path as their hardcore counterparts. Songs like “The Abolition of Man” take swings at irony and insincerity with a reminder that there’s nothing wrong with being virtuous. This album in many ways was a wake-up call to apathy and Thrice try to root that out in as many places as they can: from political institutions to much-needed attitude adjustments. Paired with buckets of melodic riffs, a smorgasbord of vocal ideas, catchy choruses, and drip-fed aggression that knows when to hold back and when to push forward, The Artist in the Ambulance delivers on every front. The breakneck pace is thankfully paired with a sense of orchestration so everything feels purposefully placed and makes listening from start to finish anything but a chore. In the halls of post-hardcore and alternative music, this record stands as a classic that is a stark reflection of the time and place that Thrice were in at the time and its impact can still be felt.