Nearly a full decade ago, in early 2004, The Unicorns released their last official recordings in an EP titled The Unicorns: 2014. What seemed like a puttering close to their career, however, was a perfect microcapsule of the band. The record began like this:
“Tomorrow is 2014, when I’ll be 32 and we’ll be thirteen. But will there be enough room for me? Enough oxygen, for me to breathe?”
By the end of the year, The Unicorns would cease to exist. In late December, after a slew of clunky, exhausting shows, Nick Diamonds would walk off stage. On December 28, their website would read, “THE UNICORNS ARE DEAD, (R.I.P.)”
And that was that.
In the year leading up to their demise, the band toured heavily beneath the clouds of critical acclaim and rumors of intense infighting. It was hard to pin down how serious they were about themselves, recording again, whether or not Alden Penner and Diamonds hated each other. The majority of their interviews were entertaining but useless circle-jerks of fantastical lies. But if The Unicorns couldn’t play it straight to an interviewer, they were at least leaving crumb-trails on their recordings. It will forever be a question exactly how much honesty is leaking into the back-and-forth on “Child Star.” The Unicorns were “Ready To Die” but they also yearned for fame on “Let’s Get Known.” Art is nothing without contradiction and The Unicorns were steeped in it. They were conflicted from the beginning.
This was noticeable to very few since the coverage of bands like this was so very different ten years ago, in the infancy of social media and online editorial. Most fans got their precious information from the rumors and show reports detailed in The Secret Unicorns Forum, a small but hungry message board. To many, it seemed that The Unicorns were deflating under the pressure of success, with little left to show of themselves as they coasted, tour fatigued, on the fumes of Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone?.
When The Unicorns: 2014 was released, Nick Sylvester reviewed it for Pitchfork, giving it a 3.6 and saying, “The Unicorns have got to get their shit together” and that “If there's any common ground between these two new songs, it's that both seem strikingly unfinished, and far less developed than the band's previous material.” The latter sentiment couldn’t be further from the truth.
The review went on to call the songs silly, amateurish, meandering, and slapdash. The reason to cite this particular review is that it represents a large misconception about The Unicorns. Sylvester mistakes a tonal change in the band for a lessening of vision, as many others did, when really what we were witnessing was the cusp of a big bang, the birth of three wildly talented artists expanding exponentially, into the next phase of their lives. The Unicorns didn’t need to stick around and beat the horse of “memorable indie-pop bliss.” They were growing so rapidly that it looked like crashing and burning. It was only the end of one chapter.
The Unicorns: 2014 is the perfect embodiment of The Unicorns, their frayed ends, their self-awareness, their spooky aesthetics. The cover art itself is a visual compendium of all things Unicorns—an anthropomorphic tree hosts headstones, ghosts, ape-skulls, a Jack-O-Lantern, a bloody butcher’s knife, and it’s crowned by clouds with cacti, planets, floating dicks and tits. It’s a neon mess of haunted, candy imagery.
A version of the track “2014” had already appeared on Three Inches of Blood, but now, in its crystal clarity, it communicates a more meta knowledge, a possible understanding of their end. The year 2014 could easily be a hyperbole of 2004, a device used to distance them from the inevitable end. It questions if there is literal room for them to exist. The song echoes Alden’s sentiments about the music industry, an indicator of their rift, he once aired in a now-offline Pitchfork article: “I've always wanted to play music and have it available to other people in a way that's a lot more associated with punk music or even folk music and not so involved in a business. And there were differing point of views about that. That's the trouble with being in a band.” The song grows and pries through a sad, ghoulish mist, expounding upon the building blocks of their beginnings—it uses fiction to discuss itself, it blooms simple melodies. It’s a wink on a frightened face.
The b-side, “Emasculate The Masculine,” appeared in a pre-Unicorns Alden project, All Makes Parts & Collision, as a beautiful piano instrumental called “Soon.” They weren’t going in a new direction; they were scratching at what brought them to where they were. The song, now robust with the full band, layered lyrics about what it means to be a man and accepting the tide of change, chugs forward with palpable want. “Chugs forward,” in this instance, in this song, is the truest way to describe the sound of progression with pointed aim.
The song, and EP, ends with “Masculine”, flourishing in breakdowns, giving each member a few instrumental asides, three spotlights shining. It’s so fitting it seems they might have already known, that it might have been planned. Especially since all three would go on to pursue equally satisfying, if not successful, solo efforts in the years to come. The Unicorns were the sum of all their parts, more so than many other bands, existing in a perfect setting that couldn’t be duplicated again. The EP closed their book just when it needed to, a gifted epilogue to punctuate something very special, something already on its way out.