[So hey! I’ve wanted to write about music in more detail for a while now, since Twitter isn’t really the greatest place for lengthy criticism pieces. Expect more stuff like this in the future on music new, old, bad, good, whatever.]
It’s pretty codified, in the annals of How Everyone Knows These Things Work, that second albums have a lot stacked against them. When a band’s first album is a critical success, the ideal follow-up elaborates on the ideas and aesthetic put forth by its predecessor, without veering too wildly into new territory. Sometimes, bands can pull this off (Daft Punk’s Discovery, LCD Soundsystem’s Sound of Silver, Yeasayer’s Odd Blood), but just as often sophomore efforts get judged harshly due to unrealistic expectations. Which sucks! People change over time! Not all bands want to crank out the same shit over and over! Creativity is a journey, not a destination!
THAT BEING SAID: I’m not really into the new Glass Animals album.
IN MY DEFENSE: I’m not really a longtime fan of them, so it’s not like I’ve been drooling over this release for ages. I was only dimly aware of their existence until I took a camping trip earlier this summer out in the dusty high desert of eastern Oregon. It was dusk, and a newly-met friend was driving a whole pile of us back from a nearby obsidian flow– a vast, barren pile of warped rock and shattered black glass left over from an ancient volcano. Our friend was talking about how deeply, vitally important Glass Animals’ first record Zaba was to them, and put it on the car stereo for the ride back to camp. Plunging back into the woods in the dim, slanting twilight, the flow’s jagged alien landscape still haunting our minds, Zaba’s songs curled and twisted around the car’s cabin like wisps of smoke, creating a blurred sensation of being at once both there and somewhere undefinably Elsewhere. I don’t think there could possibly be a more ideal place to stage a listening party for this record.
This is what makes Zaba so compelling: Like a big pile of glass lost somewhere in a forest, you have to wander deep into it in order to make sense of it. Its songs are sparse– a jumble of bass throbs and found sound draped across pounding percussion. Singer Dave Bayley’s voice winds through this maze like a phantom, and his wispy, hushed delivery gives his oblique lyrics a half-remembered sheen, like a dream you just woke up from. The band took a lot of overt reference during their writing process from tropical adventure books; the album’s name is a reference to (legend) William Steig’s book The Zabajaba Jungle, which is certainly fitting. It’s a great soundtrack for sleeping, for meditating, for looking inwards, for when you want to get Lost in a way reality can’t quite allow. (Also: great for fucking. Like oh my god, probably obvious, but.) I mention all this because it’s key to understanding what How To Be A Human Being is as well: an album clearly created by the same people as Zaba, with the same techniques and sonic earmarks, but also an album that stands as its complete inverse.
Compared to Zaba’s seductive midnight beat, songs on HTBAHB are cast in full daylight, the nature-inspired textures and echoing drums replaced by bright, sizzling pop synths. Lyrics are no longer knots that can be slowly unraveled– they’re concrete, literal affairs that seem to be some sort of sarcastic paean towards millennial life. There’s mentions of job troubles, fear of getting older, empty sex, Netflix, boredom, the suburbs, hating parents, checking phones too much, and food, just so many weird references to food. Bayley’s voice is still the same husky ghost, but instead of sounding seductive he sounds exhausted, low-grade pissed at what the world around him has grown into. The album isn’t without hooks, for sure– lead single “Life Itself” has a catchy earworm of a chorus that’s too easy to hum, and I like “Agnes” for its open, airy feel. “The Other Side Of Life” almost feels like a Zaba parody, a plonking drum machine beat smeared with Jock Jams organ chords and a vocal sample of the sort of masculine dog-chant (“ROOWF!”) that you might hear at a college football game. On “Season 2, Episode 3” (third track of their second album, ha ha, get it), video game noises play over a slow jam about finding solace in total lifestyle inertia. (And eating a lot of garbage.) It’s a sneering, maximalist stare into the reality Zaba shrinks from.
WHICH IS FINE, because after a whole album with a feel as unified and specific as Zaba, I don’t really grudge GA for trying the opposite. After playing the same whispery sexy jungle songs in town after town while relentlessly touring, I’ll bet they got kind of sick of it. I’ll bet they probably wanted this album to be a wake-up call for the kind of superfan who bought a little too much into their escapism, as well as the critic who might pigeonhole them with Alt-J and James Blake and How To Dress Well and, shit, probably In Rainbows-era Radiohead as smooth-singing R&B/electronica hybrids– Starbucks music, essentially. And I think they’ve succeeded without sacrificing too much of what they consider to be their “core” tactics– drums at the front, slinky bass, field-recorded sonic tinsel. It’s not a bad record, all things considered. And yet. And yet!
And yet truth be told, I’m already an overstimulated millennial jackass who’s acutely aware of just how shallow and aimless and fake our modern iteration of “real life” can feel. I don’t really need Glass Animals to snidely point that out for me, especially when other musicians do it more excitingly (shout out to Clarence Clarity, suuuper looking forward to THAT new LP2!). GA are building funhouse mirrors where they used to build monoliths, and both are valid options. But monoliths stand long after mirrors break, and how we choose to escape is more timeless than what we want to escape from.
BUT HEY! Give it a listen. I’d love to know what you think!