It Holds Up: Thrice – ‘The Artist in the Ambulance’

Posted: by The Editor

Photo by Jazmin Lemus

On February 1, 2023, Thrice fans split into two factions. On one side, purists fiercely defended The Artist in the Ambulance (2003), the band’s third studio album and their first on a major label (Island Records). On the other side, innovators praised The Artist in the Ambulance – Revisited (2023), the re-recording of the original tracklist the band released 20 years later.

Of course, nothing is black and white (even if, in 2023, it might seem like that’s the reality in which we live). Many longtime Thrice fans hold a special affinity for the original recording of Artist, especially since it likely came out at a formative time in their lives (high school or college). But they also admire and appreciate what Dustin Kensrue, Teppei Teranishi, Eddie Breckenridge, and Riley Breckenridge were able to do with the re-recording, taking advantage of their more mature sound and their lived experience over two decades but with a stated intention not to make the album sound like it had “lost its soul or turned into something else.” (I consider myself to be part of this group.)

The Artist in the Ambulance was released on July 22, 2003. Incredibly, the band’s lineup then is the same as today—Kensrue (vocals/guitar) and Teranishi (lead guitar) founded the band in 1998, while they were in high school, and brothers Eddie (bass) and Riley (drums) joined shortly thereafter. The foursome remained together until the band’s hiatus starting in 2012 and all returned for the reunion starting in 2015. 

The album’s lasting impact was predicted by its commercial and critical success. It peaked at No. 16 on the Billboard 200 chart (the band’s first to chart). Yet there’s an element of “what could have been” at play for the band. The band felt strongly that the title track—which has become their second-most-played live song of all time—should have been the second single release after “All That’s Left,” which appeared on the Madden NFL ’04 soundtrack (!). But, as Kensrue tells it, a “certain program director at a certain radio station” told the band that if it released “Stare at the Sun” instead as the second single, the station would “play the hell out of it.” They did. The station didn’t. 

Now, in 2023, “Artist” has four times as many streams as “Stare.” “What would have happened had we stayed the course?” Kensrue wonders. 

Other albums celebrating their 20th anniversaries might belong to bands that have broken up, stopped playing those songs on tour, or generally not spoken about or interacted with those songs for many years. It’s the polar opposite for Thrice, who not only re-released Artist but also produced an accompanying podcast discussing the recording of the new version as well as the original 2003 release. They also played the album in its entirety on tour from May 18 to June 23. (I was lucky enough to be at the House of Blues show in Chicago on June 9.)

The band decided to proceed with the re-recording of Artist in part so that the album would more closely match the way they play on stage today. “The question has to be asked,” they wrote in the liner notes of the 2023 LP: “Why would we re-record a 20 year old album, let alone one that is widely beloved and arguably our most well known?” The answer is that they feel, on the 2003 iteration, their “playing and singing feels stiff.” 

Using “Silhouette,” a song that has remained a staple of their tours over the years, as an example, Thrice wrote, “It’s so strange for us to hear the original recording of a song like ‘Silhouette,’ a song that has slowly found its groove and pacing and soul on the stage over the past two decades, and have it feel stilted and wound too tight.” While praising the talent of Andy Wallace, who mixed the original recordings at Soundtrack studios in New York City, the band, “for whatever reason,” never felt that his mix “matched their vision for the record.”

What changed from Artist circa 2003 to Artist 2023? “We played with tempos, we stripped back layered vocals and guitars, we left some space,” the band wrote. To again consider “Silhouette,” a chameleonic song that would have been at home on multiple Thrice records, sonically it now feels more akin to Thrice in the To Be Everywhere Is to Be Nowhere (2016) era. While early Thrice is marked by complex time signatures (and frequent changes between them), amplified basslines, and hard drums—not to mention Kensrue’s more gritty, raw vocals—the modern band is more restrained overall, with slowed-down tempos (see: “Hurricane,” “Black Honey”) and an emphasis by Kensrue to take his time on vocals with his matured voice. “The vocals are so much less stiff this time around and it makes a big difference,” Kensrue said about “Silhouette.”

The re-recorded album also benefits from guest vocal contributions by Ryan Osterman of Holy Fawn, Chuck Ragan of Hot Water Music, Sam Carter of Architects, Mike Minnick of Curl Up and Die, Brian McTernan of Be Well, and Andy Hull of Manchester Orchestra.

Is the new Artist “better”? Does it have to be? It’s different; it’s a worthy addition to the band’s discography. And it netted us a tour with songs the band rarely plays live; the song that has benefited most from the glow-up, “The Melting Point of Wax,” has only appeared on setlists 91 times. That may not sound all that rare until you consider Thrice has performed its most-played song, “The Earth Will Shake,” 592 times live. Some fans have noted that the re-recording of “The Melting Point of Wax” (in contrast to the original) sounds like it could have appeared on a contemporary Thrice album. Like the rest of the re-recorded album, at times it sounds slightly muddy, but otherwise, slowing things down, simplifying the “flashy strings,” and the care Kensrue takes with his vocals elevate the song into an all-timer, one the band should keep as a staple in the live setlist. 

It’s sort of Inception-y to consider the fact that the Artist songs Thrice played live on their tour this summer weren’t the songs we all first heard in 2003, but their reimagined versions as captured on the 2023 release. In some sad way, those 2003 songs are gone forever. (After playing through Artist, on the back half of their tour, Thrice added The Illusion of Safety favorite “Deadbolt,” which still sounds amazing live, but has nevertheless also undergone a revision over the years.)

But just as we have all changed in innumerable ways in the last two decades, so too have our favorite bands, even the ones who marked a hugely important developmental time in our lives. Enough ink has been spilled on the nostalgia harvesting for the post-hardcore explosion of the early aughts; we don’t need to retread it here. At the end of the day, however, whatever your thoughts about the re-recording of Artist, how special that the original lineup of a band many of us saw live for the first time 20-plus years ago not only remains intact and touring but cares enough about these songs—and our experience of them—that they would put in the care and effort to give them a new life. 

As Kensrue sings on “The Melting Point of Wax,” it’s “a leap of faith,” but it pays off. 

Michelle Bruton | @MichelleBruton

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