Head to a half•alive gig and punk is the last thing you’ll likely find. Ever since the band seemingly cracked the code for going viral with their breakout hit ‘still feel.’ (thanks to a luminously lit basement and tight choreography in the song’s video), they’ve become a go-to for wholesome, upbeat releases.
Often utilising frontman Josh Taylor’s film school credentials, the band have a theatrical quality to both their shows and their sound, with Taylor frequently making use of high-pitched wailing beneath a swirling mass of strings and synths.
Indeed, their latest album might be called Conditions of a Punk, but in truth it’s more of what you’d expect from the Long Beach, California trio: often emotional, and even intricate, but rarely gritty.
That said, what fans and observers had initially been expecting was the second half of a double album, following the release of Give Me Your Shoulders Part I in February. Regardless of who’s decision it was to release the latest record instead (label or band), Part II didn’t materialise, although we do still have all seven tracks from Part I on the album. So, in a sense, it’s merely a change of name, rather than a change in musical direction.
When we spoke to the band earlier this year, they told us their successful debut, Now, Not Yet (which was streamed more than 600 million times in total) was “more cerebral”, whilst this latest record would be “more emotional”.
The titular track and opener sets out this stall, beginning with a soft piano that builds into a thumping tune for the broken-hearted, as Taylor sings “love ain’t thought it was”. (Taylor also told us this album exhibited the first time he’s explored love in his lyrics).
There’s something spacious and gliding about ‘Brighton’; and the questioning, dreamlike ‘Did I Make You Up?’ demonstrates some of the album’s more intricate, engaging production, especially its use of auto-tune.
‘Never Been Better’ is my personal favourite on the record – the track with the album’s sole feature in Orla Garland. Not only does it have a nostalgic quality that sits somewhere between Tame Impala Toro Y Moi, but its chorus has a sorrowfulness that a gloomy listener like me can genuinely tap into. Downbeat closer ‘Lost’ bears a similar atmosphere.
Unfortunately for the album, judged in its entirety, lost is often where we can find ourselves on this 18-track record. Many of them sound similar; you’re either at a disco or waving a candle along to Taylor’s vocals, with little in-between.
Granted, not every track on an album can be completely captivating and some respite can be welcome. But on this lengthy, 55-minute album, songs like ‘Nobody’, ‘I’ll Stop’ and ‘Yosemite’ simply fall through the cracks. The band might have grown a massive following by the power of what one song alone can do, but Conditions of a Punk often then exhibits the downside of this approach, failing to sound cohesive as a whole.
What’s more, ‘Never Been Better’ stands out in part because it feels like a moment of genuine anguish. The band might equally have succeeded through a certain theatricality, but sometimes they should learn to drop their guard from a performative offering, and not be afraid to give genuine vulnerability.
Consequently, it’s a disco-infused album that lacks a real edge; Foals’ ‘Life Is Yours’ if it were devised by a Christian rock band. That said, an album of remixed releases, perhaps with some producers who can add a bit more zest, would certainly be a project worth exploring. Some tracks sound ripe for such a remix. Then maybe I’d be more inclined to join in with their upbeat offering.