“To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” Such was the advice of one John Henry Newman (the theologian, not the bland-as-butterless-bread singer), and, from the Beatles to Bon Iver, it’s a creed that most of history’s greatest musicians rightly adhere to. So we should admire the musical cojones Glass Animals have displayed by deciding to drastically alter what we were just starting to recognise as the ‘Glass Animals sound’ so soon after its inception, even if (as I suspect) this move turns out to be premature.
On new album ‘How To Be a Human Being’, the fresh-faced perpetrators of gooey soul have all but forsaken the self-contained jungle pop of debut album ‘Zaba’ in a bid to create something more immediate and relatable. Instead of the rich (but impenetrable) lyrics about leopards lazing on plush pillows and chic snake-baboons that drenched their debut, singer Dave Bayley now elects instead to draw his subject matter from real life stories and interactions with strangers. The resulting album definitely achieves what he and his band set out to accomplish by yanking their music out of its imaginary world and injecting it with a new dose of relevancy. Sadly it also feels that, in rejecting the fantastical, Glass Animals might have lost sight of what made their band fantastic in the first place.
Let’s momentarily delay our premature mourning to hone in on some of the positive changes on this record. And make no mistake, much of it is positive. ‘How To Be A Human Being’ sounds self-consciously younger than its predecessor, in part because its best songs offer familiar snapshots of the perennial millennial pursuit of adulthood. This theme is most certainly the focus of the album’s opening trio of singles/probable future singles. The slow realisation dawning on “Camden's own Flash Gordon” (the subject of ‘Life Itself’) that he might not end up being as special or famous as his parents promised, is a revelation most of us have had/will have over the course of our 20s. Meanwhile the more positive ‘Youth’ sweetly conveys the emotions of a young single mother sacrificing her life’s prime years for the happiness of her son.
The album saunters on like a well-paced collection of short stories. On the appropriately titled ‘Season 2 Episode 3’, Bayley laments the death of vocal interaction in a run-of-the-mill ‘Netflix-n-chill’ relationship over some sexy, classic R Kelly beats (“Don’t you leave me baby boy, Because I’m so happy without your noise” begs the protagonist’s mayonnaise-loving girlfriend during the chorus).
But then Glass Animals seem to lose confidence in where their changing sound is headed. On ‘Pork Soda’ Bayley suddenly and unexpectedly drops more F-bombs than Malcolm Tucker narrating Life of Mammals. Doubtless this is intended to ward off any tweenage Bastille-fans attracted by the group’s intoxicating combination of pure pop hooks and freckled good looks, but it betrays a band not yet comfortable enough with their own identity to start trying to stage manage every aspect of their shifting image.
Next, disastrously, comes album highlight ‘Mama’s Gun’. I say ‘disastrously’ because the song’s sudden hark back to the smooth, dusky vibe of ‘Zaba’ is akin to having a new puppy find a well-chewed ball that belonged to your old dead dog in the corner of its kennel, drop it excitedly at your feet, then grin stupidly at your tearful face as memories all come rushing back. It’s a tragic reminder of everything the first album did so ruddy perfectly, the way it wove this glittering cocoon of sound in which the group could have spent a few more years growing into maturity. Instead we have a fairly vibrant caterpillar slinking out early for a ciggy and a breath of fresh air.
The second half of the album ranges from the messy yet interesting (the brooding menace of ‘Take a Slice’) to the downright atrocious (is the Alt-J-by-numbers rap on ‘Cane Shuga’ meant to be a tribute to those rice cake guys?) With a few more albums under the belt, Glass Animals could have released a great, focused transition record, making either an informed foray into the mainstream or forging an intriguing new path away from it. Yes, musical evolution is essential for any group seeking longevity and lasting influence. But forcing change, rather than letting it come naturally, also risks that creative umbilical cord throttling a newborn band’s growing identity before it it’s even left the womb. Glass Animals should definitely continue tinkering with their sound; they just haven’t yet earnt the right to full reinvention yet.
Words: Josh Gray
- - -
- - -