Monday, January 25, 2016

album review: 'adore life' by savages

This has been one of my most hotly anticipated albums of the year.

And really, if you go back to listen to Savages' incredible debut album, you'd see why. Silence Yourself may have been preceded by stark proclamations that many could read as reaching for impact, but the music could back it up, a haunted cacophony of noisy guitars, pummelling bass grooves and drums, and Jehnny Beth's harsh but starkly emotive delivery, walking the line between sultry and righteous rage. And that's before we get into the writing, blunt on the surface but nuanced in the framing that contorted relationships through a fiercely dominant but complex sexual picture. In other words, with every listen it only gets better and it was definitely one of my favourite albums of 2013.

And yet since then, Savages seem to have eschewed anything that would hem them in artistically or away from the more intense, difficult music they want to create. This first manifested in 2014 with the performance art piece Words To The Blind, an improvised collaboration with Japanese acid punk group Bo Ningen that delved into failures of communication across a divide that could only be spanned by regressing down to the simplest and most raw of moments - especially considering that failure of communication wasn't shy about implicating the audience in their own lack of understanding. And thus when I heard that their full-length sophomore release was partially inspired by Swans... well, I wasn't surprised, especially considering the themes and repetition that underscored To Be Kind. So I was prepared for a tough but inevitably rewarding listen with Adore Life - did I get it?

Okay, I'll be blunt: I did have some reservations going into this record given the somewhat critical reception that it has received, but let me start off by saying that Adore Life by Savages is indeed a very good, even great record - and yes, it's aiming to do something very different than Silence Yourself which provides enough justification for the slight shift in sound, to the point where I feel history will be kinder to this record than some critics today. That said, the album I was reminded of most when listening through Adore Life was not any post-punk or even rock records, but Pageant Material by Kacey Musgraves, which is indeed a great record... but when placed in comparison with her starmaking, more viscerally grabbing debut Same Trailer, Different Park - which along with Silence Yourself were among my favourite records of 2013 - it's not at the same level. Not so much a sophomore slump but ultimately it'll be an uphill battle to see if Adore Life will have the same staying power.

So how the hell did this happen? Well, part of it is Jehnny Beth herself, where the first notable change is. Their debut material was more martial and harsh, opting for a much harder edge in the content and delivery. Adore Life, on the other hand, requires Beth to be more subtle and melodic, which has her moving into her upper range and the more sultry, expressive tones you only got snippet of on Silence Yourself. And for the most part she kills this - the high notes that end off 'Adore', the raw twist of the vocal line on 'I Need Something New', how well she shows dimension on the paradoxically elated 'Sad Person', the frustrated bitterness of 'T.I.W.Y.G.', and the exhausted mantra-like quality of 'Mechanics'. What gets a little weird is the vocal production, in that while some of her words are more audible in comparison with their debut, her vocal production doesn't always seem to match well with the rest of the instrumentation, either with a little too much reverb or not enough, so that her vocals feel plastered on top and not as immersive.

In fact, let's get the big issue with this album out of the way right now: for as good as so many of these compositions are, the production really is nowhere near as crisp, cavernous, or powerful as their last record. When the electric guitar roars to the front it doesn't have the same bite, the more rhythm grooves aren't as noisy or rough, and the bass texture is severely lacking outside of a few moments. Really, even though the drum arrangements aren't as explosive as they were on Silence Yourself, they're probably the best-produced part of this record in terms of balancing, which is another issue when you have songs that try for similar atmosphere as their debut - potent, hard-edged bass grooves balanced out by the seething, smoky noise - and yet don't turn the bass up enough to pull it off. And I'm not sure who to blame for this: just like their debut Savages worked with Johnny Hostile, but on Silence Yourself they got some welcome assistance from Rodaidh McDonald on production, which might have been the extra bit of precise finetuning this album needed. And I say all that for two reasons: one, like always, Savages will play better live than on record; and two, the compositions here are still really great. Yes, the album does not have the same explosive force as Silence Yourself - which does hurt tracks that are trying for more of the titanic, Swans-esque repetition - but by opting for a more intimate focus there are moments that really connect. I like the subtle melodic major chord shift on 'Sad Person' that turns an otherwise dark song into something brighter, I love the roiling grooves that drive 'Evil' and 'Slowing Down The World', the seething, glitchy atmosphere that swells around the cavernous 'I Need Something New' as the persistent drums and bass drive the foundation or the more lo-fi furious picking of 'T.I.W.Y.G.' that eventually fades into the ebbing waves of fragmented atmosphere on 'Mechanics'. The songs that probably suffer the most from not having the same textured bite are 'When In Love' and 'Surrender' - as well as 'The Answer', although the slightly unsteady grooves might be too awkward to make that work - as they both crying out for more swell, and even though I'd probably say 'Adore' is my favourite song on this album, you could probably drive those huge crescendos into even more powerful territory.

But of course where Savages won me over last time was in lyrics - and like what I said before, I'd argue there's not quite the same visceral punch in the writing as there was on the debut. But I'm also more willing to give it a pass as intentional, because while Savages' debut was driven by aggression, this is an album more focused on finding pleasure and love and wringing every bit of passion out of life, good or bad. As such, while Jehnny Beth's dominant persona is plenty intact, it's a fair bit more subtle and even compassionate this time around, mostly as it sketches out the picture of the man and life that she craves to love. And note when I say 'love' I'm referring to Beth's brand of raw, decisive, flagrantly sexual and experimental brand of it, and what I really appreciate is how that is framed, which is not always positive. Yes, you get snapshots of the elation that Beth feels by embracing all of that emotion and freedom and not kowtowing to detachment or a disapproving society, but she also knows it's an addiction that constantly has her searching for more in a relationship to save off sadness or doubt, or partners who won't bring the same intensity she does. That's one of the reasons I love 'Adore' so much - it presents her with all the questions and doubts on why she might feel guilt or fear for wringing as much raw pleasure out of life and love when others can't do the same, and yet by sheer force of will she owns all of that. But of course it can't all go one way, which is why she tries to compel her partner to reveal the roots of his insecurities on 'Slowing Down The World', or the semi-public sex springing up from boredom on 'I Need Something New'. It's one of the reasons why the heartbreak of 'T.I.W.Y.G' hits so hard for me - this is a song where she throws it all on the line again - the exhausting passion that's doing a number on her psyche as she chooses not to detach - and yet at the end of the song you hear the ring of applause and laughter from a crowd who is plainly detached, and if that's not the sort of indictment of both her and the audience analogous to what Father John Misty did on 'Bored In The USA', I don't know what is. 

And yet while I love the plain-spoken admittance of what Beth needs out of these relationships, it highlights a subtle issue in the writing that ties into the weaker production: language. Quite simply, while the subject matter is more subtle, the writing didn't quite advance with it, either not having the impact you got with songs like 'Hit Me' or 'Strife' or 'Shut Up' or 'No Face', but similarly not having the subtlety to add layers to support the more restrained presentation. It's what makes songs like 'The Answer', 'When In Love', and 'Surrender' lack impact for me - the framing is more complex as they describe the very real uncertainties in this relationship, but the poetry either doesn't go stark and harsh enough to drive those mantras or complex enough to add more detail. As it is, I can see why some critics branded the writing as less anthemic and more repetitive, which isn't entirely fair, but I did find myself looking for more here.

In other words, while I do really like this record, it doesn't have the same grip on me Silence Yourself did, there isn't that same thrill. And in a sense you're never going to recapture all of that - part of the debut's impact was surprise - but I feel with heavier, more textured production or slightly sharper writing or maybe even giving these songs more room to breathe explode, this could have been one of the best of the year instead of just being great. So it's an 8/10 for me and definitely recommended, but I challenge you all to check out Silence Yourself first. Otherwise - look, there isn't much better post-punk than this being made anymore, and that reason alone should be enough to get you to check this out.

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