Tuesday, February 13, 2018

album review: 'beautiful people will ruin your life' by the wombats

I said there were a lot of albums coming out in February I was anticipating - and this is next up on the docket.

And this might surprise some people, given that The Wombats don't exactly have a sterling critical reputation. Oh, they won critics over in a big way with their debut A Guide To Love, Loss & Desperation with its nervy brand of post-punk and indie rock that seemed a little wilder than many would expect, but they took steps towards conventionality on their next two records, even venturing more into synthpop. But here's the thing: despite thinking their debut is probably still their best work, their 2015 project Glitterbug was remarkably strong, with huge hooks, a ton of energy, and a refreshing amount of maturity in their songwriting and framing - hell, that record and a few songs from it made my year-end lists!

But I will say I was worried about this album - early singles hadn't really stuck with me and let's be honest, the 80s-inspired synthpop that drove Glitterbug is nowhere close to the same preeminence it was three years ago, which likely means the band evolved again... but into what? Part of The Wombats' fundamental appeal was their energy and ability to swerve, but they're a band that have been together a long time and age does creep in - and while The Wombats have always gotten some mixed reviews, this time it looked like slowing down had hurt them even more. In other words, even though I had a lot of high hopes that this would kick ass, I was also setting myself up for possible disappointment - so what did we get?

Okay, this is the sort of album that puts me in a very conflicted position, because the more listens I gave it, the more I was convinced it was the natural outgrowth of what we heard on Glitterbug - the grooves were tighter than ever, the whirling late-80s synthpop sheen had been refined into punchy new wave post-punk, in comparison with the wild emotionality of their last record this certainly felt more mature, a natural progression... so why don't I like it nearly as much? I'm not saying this is bad and I wouldn't even call it their worst album when you have This Modern Glitch, but what it reminded me more of was that last Beck album Colors - hazy, ever so slightly melancholic, and wishing the party came easier like it had in the past.

And here's the thing: when you take a look at the content, so much of this feels like a natural extension of Glitterbug that I'm inclined to dig for the same emotional gutpunch that made that record work so well. The parties described are still utterly wild and careening on the edge of control, and frontman Matthew Murphy is going to make sure you see all the details in technicolor, a fair few good but a lot more bad, and even though he's now happily married, the fights that characterize tracks like 'Lemon To A Knife Fight' or even the confused affection at the root of 'I Don't Know Why I Like You But I Do' still highlight some of that same tension. And yeah, I've always liked the style of this songwriting - it's colorful, it pains a vivid picture... but you rapidly realize that without a lot of significant differentiation in the ideas underscoring the writing it can really start to run together, especially when it feels like the dramatic stakes of these parties don't have the same weight.

And a huge part of that comes in the production and sound - and look, credit where it's due, on paper this was a direction that had a ton of potential to really click for me - going back towards the tight, nervy grooves that made The Wombats so potent, maybe even stepping towards post-punk, taking all that wild energy that characterized Glitterbug and focusing it into something sharper, that should work... and yet with every listen through this record - which clocks less than forty minutes and man it feels shorter - it feels like something was missed. See, I'll be the first to admit that from its delivery alone, Glitterbug could feel shallow or melodramatic, but it knew how to lean into it and play to The Wombats' natural tendency to go for big, wild emotionality - it wasn't as ragged as A Guide To Love, Loss, and Desperation but by cranking up the huge synth leads and roaring guitars, it captured a similar emotional head rush. But despite following with very close themes, when you strip it down to slick, cool bassy grooves and overall a much more melancholic vibe, it places the darkness that was just subtext on Glitterbug as text and I'm not sure the directness helps, or plays to the band's natural sense of melodramatic exuberance. Or to put it another way, it kills a lot of the vigor and natural humor of the band when you have songs like 'Ice Cream' and 'I Don't Know Why I Like You But I Do' that in terms of the melodic progression and tone of the groove wouldn't be far removed from Joy Division, or a song like 'Black Flamingo' with the blaring lead-guitar melody that reminds me of those mid-to-late-2000s indie rock bands that would take their party vibe ironically, which doesn't align with the emotional core of The Wombats at all! And it doesn't help that you can tell Murphy isn't giving the same huge performance he did on Glitterbug - he's fine enough on this, and he's certainly capable of conveying this brand of anxiety, but with so much of this album tilting towards minor tones, again, it's not playing to the band's strengths. 

Now that isn't saying there aren't songs I like on this - hell, bassist Tord Overland Knudsen is working overtime on this record and he deserves all the credit in the world for his work here, the grooves are consistently excellent, damn near the best part of this album. And when you have the greater swell that comes through off the spikes of guitar on 'Cheetah Tongue', the deeper revving swell of 'Turn', the jagged, jangling bounce of 'White Eyes', or the old-fashioned but solid guitar lick driving 'Dip You In Honey', but this is where we run into a problem I've already referenced: length. As I said, this is a short record, and the reason it feels so short is that many of these songs just feel undercooked, most lacking any substantial bridge or solo, or in the case of a track like 'Lethal Combination' like a blocky stumble into modern, reverb-saturated indie pop - hell, with as much reverb touches the vocals and guitars on this project, it's hard not to slot this record uncomfortably close to that sound, yet another thing cutting on this band's natural buoyancy. And that's before you get the flipside on 'I Only Wear Black', which I tried to like until I realized it sounded like a late-period Panic! At The Disco song... and yet somehow bereft of the theatricality i know they can deliver.

But as a whole... man, the more I listened through this record the more I was let down by it, the first real disappointment of 2018... and sadly one I can't exactly blame the band for. It's clear the band has matured and is settling more into a comfort zone, but what made The Wombats such a thrilling act was how they would careen out of that zone with the big emotions to back it up, and if those emotions just aren't there in the same way... well, that happens. And make no mistake, they are still talented, so if this is just a transition towards becoming an indie veteran mainstay in the vein of Spoon, I'd definitely be intrigued... but as of this record, they aren't all the way there, at least for me. As such, this is getting a very strong 6/10, but the recommendation is for Wombats fans first. Everyone else, go check out A Guide To Life, Loss & Desperation and Glitterbug and then maybe this if you're curious... and even then, I can't quite promise you'll be satisfied.

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