Fifth is the fifth album from the Autumn Defense, the side project of longtime Wilco members John Stirratt and Patrick Sansone, and if that doesn’t seem like an especially exciting name, it doesn’t take long to realize that they put enough imagination into the music that they can be forgiven for not going overboard when dreaming up a title. Much like their brilliant 2007 self-titled album, Fifth is a gorgeous evocation of ’70s soft rock fading into sunshine pop, and the craft of the album is unassailable: Stirrattand Sansone’s lead vocals and harmonies are outstanding, the arrangements and performances are beautiful and emotionally powerful for all their smooth and sunny exteriors, and the songwriting is superb, at once capturing the sound and feel of a specific era and creating something that’s absolutely fresh in its sincerity and subtle force.
While it would be easy to make music like this sound treacly and ironic, the Autumn Defense understand that pop music can cover a broad emotional palette, and part of what makes Fifth so effective is Stirratt and Sansone’s gift for adding the right amount of shade to their Laurel Canyon sunset fantasies. “August Song,” “What’s It Take,” and “Calling Your Name” are near-perfect pop songs that tell tales of a less-than-perfect world, even as “Why Don’t We” and “This Thing That I’ve Found” find them embracing the warmer side of the imaginary paradise they’ve created. And while in the past Stirratt and Sansone have brought in some of their well-known friends to help them bring the Autumn Defense to life in the studio, this time they’ve recorded with the live band they use on the road, and the performances have an ineffable warmth and nuance that come from musicians being comfortable with one another. Fifth isn’t much of a title, but the music is something very special, and this is one of the smartest and best-crafted pop albums of recent memory.