The Twilight Sad – IT WON/T BE LIKE THIS ALL THE TIME
In January Scottish rockers The Twilight Sad released their fifth album. The Penguin was particularly excited to hear it given the lead single from the album was his favourite track of 2018, but not even that really prepared him for the totality of this album. It’s an album that merits – and really needs – repeated listens to understand the sheer scale of ambition and emotional depth the album contains.
The band toured extensively with the Cure and it is easy to hear their influences throughout the record. This is not an upbeat record, as the album title strongly hints at, and it may be that your tolerance for sadness dictates how much you enjoy this album.
Instead it is a journey of pain, insecurities – riddled with contradictory lyrics “And he won’t leave us alone, And please don’t leave me alone, I don’t know who to trust, Don’t let me do my worst” and anguish, with the lyrical pain amplified by the wall of despair that builds in almost every song.
James Graham’s voice is one of the finest things in music. His Scottish lilt adds an effortless poetry to their sound, his lyrics sound all the more striking because of it. But every instrument is pulling in the same direction here; this is a special album because it’s that oh so rare musical moment when a band are delivering exceptional songs and everything feels essential. The guitars and keys in particular elevate the album into something truly meaningful; walls of tormented noise leave you with little room to breath at key moments throughout.
[10 Good Reasons for Modern Drugs] starts the album off as it means to go on. “Why can’t you remember me?” Graham sings in anguished tones over a wall of noise that sounds deeply unsettled and shifting. The accusatory nature of Shooting Dennis Hopper Shooting (“I caught you kissing in the back stairs’’) veers between angry and almost child-like excitement (“I know something you don’t know”). The Arbor feels like a missing classic from the Smiths, with the addition of the swirling echoed vocals that stick around for a deeply unsettling outro.
VTr is one of the finest moments on the album. Musically more radio friendly than many of the tracks, the softer indie edged mask the brutal honesty of the lyrics (“There’s a monster inside of you, Someone that you never knew, And someone that we didn’t choose”). I/m Not Here [Missing Face] is the band’s finest song to date, and a genuine modern classic. To capture so much despair and tension in five minutes is astounding.
Auge/Maschine is just a cyclone of accusations “I can’t believe you hit me, I don’t know where to go” and almost oppressive tension, the guitars piercing your ears like the lyrics pierce your soul. Keep It All to Myself speaks of shame, regret and frustration “You put up with me and the love that you see, You deserve so much more” and Girl Chewing Gum is the moment when it all becomes too much “Put me in the ground, I don’t want to be here anymore”. I cannot think of another sequence of songs as emotional raw as these three.
There’s a couple of weaker moments on the album. Let/s Get Lost struggles to follow the previous sequence of songs and Sunday Day13 feels like we’re covering ground we hear elsewhere on the album, but both are perfectly fine songs. And the album closes with Videograms, which feels like a moment of reflection, musically delicate but lyrically questioning (“Is it still me you love?”)
Somewhat fittingly, the final words on the album are “I’m Not Sure”. I don’t think the listener is either, the album is only sneaking a glance into Graham’s tortured soul, where pain and contradictions compete for attention. The urge to want to give him a hug crosses my mind every time the album finishes. It must have been so difficult to write these songs and to share this level of honesty. That he has done so and made something so special with those feelings will, we can only hope, give him some joy.
It’s rare to hear a ‘bloke’ – meant in the nicest possible way – open up so much. Where I grew up I was surrounded by northern working class men and they generally didn’t acknowledge feelings, for fear of seeming weak, confused or because they didn’t know how people would respond. It’s a toxic culture where drink masks pain and steam builds up without having anywhere to vent. That Graham is living in a similar culture and allows that steam to form the spine of this album fills me with admiration and gives me hope that maybe things can change. Lots of songwriters can speak of love or heartbreak, but how many let you peer into their soul when they’re genuinely struggling to make sense of the world and their place in it?
This album is an absolute triumph. It may not match the commercial successes of other artists this year, but artistically few will being together an album so coherent, ambitious and brave. You feel all of the raw emotions that Graham’s lyrics give you, and his vocals really are the star turn on the album. But they’re not alone in being exceptional. Those lyrics hit you because they’re surrounded by the emotional instability he feels, only we hear it as backing music.
It feels a little early to be talking about albums of the year, but someone’s going to have to produce something astounding to steal the annual crown from the lads from north of the border.