I’ve followed The Twilight Sad fairly obsessively since a friend burned a copy of their debut LP “Fourteen Autumns, Fifteen Winters” for me in 2007. It was a breath of fresh air at the time. I didn’t have to ask where they hailed from. The thick accent vocalist James Graham crooned, sometimes howled, in left little doubt there. And if that weren’t enough, the noisy, ambient wall of guitar almost directly nodded toward fellow Scots, and future label-mates, Mogwai. It was exciting. It was captivating. It was soon to become obscured.
What used to seem like a sort of postrock Frightened Rabbit for the down-trodden morphed into a hodgepodge of synth-heavy, gothic art-pop. Becoming darlings and primary opening act to The Cure could have had some influence on their new musical direction. Near-commercial success has proven that whatever formula they are going with now is working. But is it?
Upon my first listen to their newest LP (and first since the departure of drummer Mark Devine) I was hopeful. The hope mostly derived from their signing to Mogwai-owned Rock Action Records, admittedly. I tried to ignore the fact that they’d already released almost half the record through singles and teasers here and there. I was hoping the sum of these songs in connection with others would make more sense.
The opener, [10 Good Reasons for Modern Drugs], begins with a perky, slightly annoying synth-loop that James Graham joins with some preliminary vocal sentiments. After a bit of this, the rest of the band joins the party with what I can only assume is a musical drop designed to suck you in, the first big moment of the record. Always heavy on the synth and lighter on the guitar than earlier TTS stuff, there is a feeling that this tune could go either way. It stays perpetually in a state of almost-climaxing. Sober, restrained. Grahams vocals ebb and flow with such questions as “Why can’t you remember me?” I can’t help but get a sense of things being forced here.
The second offering is by far the highlight of this record. “Shooting Dennis Hopper Shooting” comes in heavy (relatively) with a catchy guitar hook over TTS signature mid-tempo drum groove. Lyrics are ominous and clever. Surprisingly lacking in the obligation seeping from those of the first tune. The chorus is one of the best from this band in a long while (“I saw you kiss him on the back stairs…That’s not fair…I saw you kill him on the back stairs”), leaving a picture that harkens back to the days of more overcast lyrical content and less general depression. The synthesizers are balanced well into the mix without being typically over-powering. I’m left to wonder why this wasn’t offered as a lead-off single.
“Arbor” takes off with a gothic, verbed-out drum machine and gentle guitar riff that soon turn into something approximately in the area of The Cure’s “Disintegration”, but not close enough for me. Dreadfully boring until a little feeling comes in with the hook. Then back to more of The Cure masquerade. Back and forth in this fashion. As is common with most of this record, they almost hit on the genius g-spot. Miss. Moving along.
We were given “VTr” as a single early on to promote this album. I have to admit this is probably the only piece on this record that is palatable besides “Shooting”. The band dances around a promising melody and Grahams now-patented, far to clean, single vocal track for far too long before the pay-off; a beautiful moment where he wails “There’s no love too small….” repeatedly. There are many times where I am embarrassed for this dude. A lot of his rhyme schemes seem to be straight out of an 8th-grade goth chicks notebook. This tune is worth a listen if you can wait a few minutes for it to pick up.
“Sunday Day13” starts off with a beautiful synth hook and some of Grahams more tolerable vocals. It’s a great build-up. You spend some time psyched because you know the big, old school Twilight Sad noise drop is coming. The jokes on you. Some atmosphere is the most you get here. A very meager course in the soup kitchen dinner that is “IT WON/T BE LIKE THIS ALL THE TIME”. All considered, an ok tune. that’s all though.
The first single we were presented with is called “I/m Not Here[missing face]. A dark, dancy pop-song that gives you the feeling that music tracks are pitched to James Graham and he is tasked with writing and recording vocals on the spot. Is it possible that these guys are a great band with what has turned out to be a charlatan fronting the band? I’m not sure but I think this is what bothers me about their newer stuff. He’s too quiet when he should really let loose. He tries to go hard when the music isn’t really demanding it. It’s awkward. The balance is not here [missing face].
We move on to “Auge/Maschine”. I have no clue what that means and I don’t really feel like looking it up. It comes in like a good postpunk tune missing a rhythm guitar track. A bit scant. More lyrics about insincerity and such. I think this record would have been helped considerably by just doubling up on the vocal tracks. Not a bad song. Not a good one. No mention of Auges or Maschines.
Powering through. (I dig this tune, by the way, so chin up mates). “Keep it all to myself” takes the scene like a shadowy Duran Duran tune on heroin. If you’re going to decide out of nowhere to become a primarily synthesizer-driven band, this is the kind of shit you should be making. The pulse of the tune makes me want to dance, and I can’t fucking dance at all. Everything is well balanced and the vocals are subtle and sweet. The violence beneath barely peeking through as it should with a good TTS tune. It seems fucking honest. My hat is off to the Twilight Sad here.
Onto “Girl Chewing Gum”. Here you get the feeling that they were dumping the stuff they didn’t really care about near the end of the album. There’s this weird pitch-bended bass that sounds like it’s fumbling to find the right notes. It’s like an over-produced jam session. Just fucking around. Especially when there is what I consider to be one of the albums biggest farts; after the first verse and chorus, the synth-player seems to go into a seizure or something. Nonsensical notes with no particular instrument setting just go haywire. But not in a good punk rock or noise way. It’s worth listening to just to see how directionless these guys can be.
“Let/s Get Lost” is pure Miami Vice meets depressed Scotsmen. I think the result is actually pretty good. This song would have fit well on the much-overhyped “Drive” soundtrack. Would have improved it even. This song is a testament, much like “Keep it to Myself”, that the band’s new approach to crafting songs can work if they communicated more.
“Videograms” takes the album out on a painfully mediocre note. There’s a throbbing, catchy beat and synthetic bass. The signature orchestral strings on the keys. Kind of groovy. The sort of thing a great chorus could really feel at home with. Instead, we get a quieting of the music with Graham whining “So don’t start…Don’t you start on me” Another case of the blue balls.
I really really tried to like this record. I hate to picture these guys emailing each other music tracks and each laying their part down in separate parts of town or whatever. But that’s the feeling I get. I think a lot of it has to do with them employing a full-time synth player. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing. But they seem to want to showcase him far too often. Whatever, It’s their band.
These are guys that I’ve hung out with before. I really respect them and they will always be one of my all-time favorite groups, thanks to their back catalog. And I don’t think they’re too far gone. This may all be symptomatic of my high expectations resulting from their setting the bar extremely high.
Whatever the case, put “Shooting Dennis Hopper Shooting” on repeat and drive fast. Til next time.