Scottish AOTY: The Twilight Sad – It Won/t Be Like This All the Time
The Twilight Sad's fifth album is heartbreaking and heartwarming, specific in detail and inclusive in scope. But, more than anything, it's honest
A quick glance at The Twilight Sad's previous album titles gives a good insight into the sort of subject matter they're concerned with: Winter, Forget, No One, Nobody. A fifth word associated with negativity could now be added: Won/t. However, there's a sense of ambiguous positivity that can be read into the band's latest title: maybe things will change for the better.
In 2015, having once again released a well-received album without reaping the concomitant commercial rewards, The Twilight Sad were worried about the future (once again). They were buoyed by a successful tour supporting The Cure, as well as the unwavering love of their fans (and Robert Smith). So the band went into seclusion to work on their next record in 2017 and early 2018, hoping to catch some of that positive mood, but wary of expecting too much.
What emerged is not a radical reimagining, or an unpredictable dive into uncharted territory, but it does make tentative steps toward hopefulness and even (whisper it) joy. They haven't abandoned their signature moves; dark, probing lyricism and dense, swirling atmospherics still abound. But there are times when a melody is allowed to unfurl without being buried in noise, or a lyric pokes through without a cloaking fog of metaphor. In these moments, there's a sense that the band are starting to let the light in. If not outright optimistic, it's at least not not wholly pessismistic. And that's something.
'We're hanging on by a thread / And you keep bowing your head'. So goes the opening line of the album on [10 Good Reasons For Modern Drugs]. It's a desparate sentiment, and James Graham spends the entire song wallowing in apathy, receding into the imagined past where things were simpler (i.e. better). It's a relatable and sadly attractive mindset, and sums up a particular brand of malaise that 2019 seemed full to the brim with.
However, by the pristine goth-rock of Videograms that closes the album, Graham is more focused and direct. 'I won't keep / All the hurt you gave to me', he sings slyly. 'Don't start / Don't you start on me' he repeats over and over – daring anyone to try. The music follows suit, more polished and sure of itself than usual, while remaining in its moody wheelhouse. But it's not exactly a neatly wrapped-up happy ending, with indecision and doubt still prevalent in the final thoughts: 'Is it still me that you love?' and ultimately 'I'm not sure'.
To reach this point the album doesn't follow a clear path, with the garbled vocals of Girl Chewing Gum or the massive, opaque wall-of-sound that starts Auge/Maschine. It's a deliberately knotty route, its darkness matched only by its sincerity. The addition of touring musicians Johnny Docherty and Brendan Smith as full members has helped the band to craft a fuller sound than ever before, and also their heaviest. There's a feeling of industrial noise on Girl Chewing Gum, while bombastic riffs threaten to overpower on chugging cuts like VTr and I/m Not Here [missing face].
Sunday Day13 provides a brief moment of reprieve from these elements as Andy MacFarlane scales back the arrangement, allowing wistful keys to lay Graham's paranoid self-loathing bare: 'Will you always be mine? / If I promise to be nice / Please don't ever change your mind / You should hate me'. It's the bleakest lull of the album, made all the more raw by the lack of shrouding instrumentation. On almost every song on the album Graham asks questions, hurling what-if's into the void and waiting to see what comes back. The Twilight Sad know well enough that their cultishly devoted fans will provide the answers, and the tactic helps the album to achieve the intimacy (and intensity) that the band so often whip up at their shows.
Evidently, this isn't technicolour Sad, but there are still enough splashes of colour and positivity to show that the band are starting to let the sun come in, though still with the fear of being blinded by the light. The album's cover is mainly concerned with the contrast of light and shade, but it's splotched with random bits of pink. It's a nod towards welcoming brightness, if not fully embracing it.
Sometimes, just acknowledging a better future is a win, and despite the heavy, lachrymose atmosphere, this album still manages to point towards a period ahead when it won't be like this, at least not all the time. It's heartbreaking and heartwarming, specific in detail and inclusive in scope, while sounding fantastic all the while. But, more than anything, it's honest.
It Won/t Be Like This All the Time was released on 18 Jan via Rock Action
Read our full Scottish Albums of 2019 list here