Chicago-based Maps & Atlases formed in art school. Fittingly, their music – including various EPs and debut album Perch Patchwork – is easily classified into the art-rock genre. But the notable fact about the band is how odd of a label that is, despite the obvious artistic ambitions abounding in their craft. Beware and Be Grateful, their newest, combines ample influences into a startling, astounding record, creating its own kind of high-art pop music.

Singer Dave Davison displays his nasal-y falsetto early in opener “Old & Gray“, the song feeling at once angular and soft. It’s the first of the inevitable comparisons to Dirty Projectors, in part because of the similar voice employed by David Longstreth. Here, Davison and company utilize it to create an odd and compelling song, welcoming the listener into an album that feels like a collector’s room – dark, worn leather furniture with odds and ends from a dozen different cultures that somehow creates a unified whole. The effect is amplified after the seamless shift into “Fever“, which adds glittering keyboards to shift into a dance phase.

We’ll be extravagant hosts instead of imposing guests

Davison sings, sounding shockingly like Barry Manilow or Billy Joel in the 80s. But the surrounding weird immediately recaptures the bare pop confession. It’s the first of many times on Beware and Be Grateful that classic pop sensibilities are openly transformed into a whole new aesthetic.

Silver Self” – billed as the album’s centerpiece – doesn’t disappoint. It shifts from a bare bones, chorus-backed revivalist preacher opening to electronic dance tune in a mere six and a half minutes. Simple drum rhythms underpin a mishmash of sonic accoutrements and a guitar solo you might not recognize as such for all else that has happened around it. This isn’t a kind of scientific argument where you can see all the pieces and how they fit together – rather, you’re just along for the ride, watching the beauty of something you can’t quite put together, but can still feel the power of.

I won’t be certain. No, I won’t be certain.
As long as I’m alive

Indeed. Beware and Be Grateful is the kind of epic James Joyce would write – entirely without presumption, entirely ordinary, and all the more extraordinary for that very reason. “Silver Self” is the best example of the Frankenstein approach to pop music the band displays throughout.

Lyrically, the songs are poetic. Davison sings of daily traumas, heartbreak, and plenty of other subjects wrapped up and hidden amongst the album’s complexities. In the ADD twitch of “Winter” he sings:

I thought I saw an aura in this void
I thought there was a mirror in your voice

But many of the lines can’t be separated from the band’s approach itself. On “Remote & Dark Years“:

It’s like there were these bottles near the end of my street
they were escaping into the sewer near my feet
so I picked them up and flattened them and pushed them through the grates
I know it seems unrelated, but I’m trying to relate to you that
I don’t want anymore remote and dark years no more

Maps & Atlases have a way of finding whatever is worthy in their environment, molding it into something new, and finding some significance lost on the rest of us. They make art from recycled pop sounds that’s stark and swelling all at once. “All the clouds that looked like cars now just look like clouds,” Davison adds on “Vampires“. Such an unassuming line that carries such weight – but the refreshing look the album offers is necessary now that “the sounds you have put your faith in will only let you down.”

If there’s any drawback to the album it’s that it sounds busy – not so much sonically, but rather like you must put a lot in to get out of it what’s there. The blend Maps & Atlases puts together is tricky, and though its pop upbringing is obvious, it occasionally feels as though the band is sneaking something in that you can’t quite put a finger on. High art pop music is rare for a reason. But, as with Joyce, that often feels like your failure, not theirs. On the overtly folk inspired closer “Important“, Davison offers one last line to encapsulate the album:

When the curtain closes, you’ll find all you’re looking for