Warpaint – Heads Up

Album Review by Aidan Ryan | 15 Sep 2016
Album title: Heads Up
Artist: Warpaint
Label: Rough Trade
Release date: 23 Sep

Whiteout, the stealthily beguiling opening track to Warpaint’s Heads Up, reassures the listener that the band’s third album won’t be as bad as its first single suggested. New Song left plenty of fans uneasy – the polished, no, simonised vocals over a generic dancepop beat and progression rubbed the wrong way; the unintended irony of the title slapped over empty lyrics from a band that appeared eight years ago with a debut EP and an already inimitable style.

In fact, the band deserves credit for expanding their sonic palette through synths, electronic drums and other production booth chicanery, and for exploring what they call a more “mature” Warpaint sound. Unfortunately, though, all this comes at the cost of believability, immediacy, and emotional depth; this is not ethereal, and unrestrained like their debut LP The Fool (2010). It offers only a shadow of that gripping, transporting, and supernatural sound that came to define the band, still found in its purest form on their last LP, 2014’s self-titled Warpaint.

The band's maturation is most evident in the vocals, which are richer, occupying a lower register, and more lushly harmonized on these songs. Gone is the siren sound of former albums, high and uncannily keening, seductive, full of quiet violence; these are cleaner, more confident. And their experimentation with new sounds – the result of recording separately or in pairs this time – can be rewarding, as on Whiteout and Dre. The walls of sound on some of these songs are richer than anything Warpaint have offered before, and digital percussion adds to tasteful polyrhythms on some tracks.

But what is experimental is not necessarily fresh. Stella Mozgawa’s intense and inventive drumming has always been the element elevating Warpaint above the artful but atmospheric stoner pop register they tend to occupy, but the percussion on Heads Up, much of it electronic, too often sounds sterile. The lyrics, too, shy away from their former heights of delicious ambiguity (think of the layered meaning, the importance of the unsaid thing, on Billie Holliday, from their Exquisite Corpse EP), and here sound tired and unconvincing. By the time So Good asks, 'Can’t you tell me all your secrets? I’ll tell you all mine,' we wonder how many nutritionless lyrical pop pills we can swallow. On Don’t Wanna Emily Kokal protests against being 'defined' – never have her sentiments been less distinctive.

Heads Up will still please some fans, and the band will be able to work some of these tracks into respectable live numbers; they’ll even win new listeners. The problem for devotees of the band’s earlier work, and for anyone who’s seen them live, is that they’ll cherish the memory of what Warpaint could (and probably still can) do, i.e. occupy a place between life and afterlife, present and future, in their precarious and imperfect way. Now, in large part because of recording separately and with a too-heavy hand in the producer’s booth (Jacob Bercovici is back), they sound cleaned up and plugged in, tethered.

But then there’s Today Dear, the closing track. In contrast with the synth sounds and many plied vocals and unsatisfying dancehall beats of tracks one through ten, this opens with a simple guitar progression over the sound of falling rain. When Kokal sings she arrests time and space – along with any judgements. Recalling her solo recordings, particularly Dark Flowers, it is unsure, vulnerable, even at times halting –  honest, imperfect, and affecting, like the very best that this quartet’s produced. Placed at the end of ten confident steps in the wrong direction, it’s a moment for the listener as well as for the musicians to reflect. They’ll find their way forward from this – and we’ll be waiting for their signal to follow.

Warpaint play Queens Hall, Edinburgh on 23 Oct; Albert Hall, Manchester on 24 Oct; and The Dome, Grand Central Hall, Liverpool on 26 Oct (as part of Liverpool Music Week)