SICK SCENES by Los Campesinos!
Genre: Indie Pop
Favorite Tracks: “Sad Suppers,” “I Broke Up In Amarante,” “The Fall of Home,” “5 Flucloxacillin,” “Here’s to the Fourth Time!,” “A Litany/Heart Swells,” “Hung Empty”
I hope everyone over the course of their lives has a chance to fall deeply, truly in love with a band. Not the kind of “love” where you loudly voice your support whenever someone pulls up a track of theirs on Spotify, but an all-consuming obsession, a painful sense of allegiance and loyalty, a firm and undiluted belief that each and every song was made for you. For me, that band is Los Campesinos! The long and short of it is that LC! came into my life at one of my most emotionally and personally vulnerable times, and provided the soundtrack for two-to-three years of the most volatile moments and challenges of adolescence. But it’s 2017 now, and I’m no longer the young adult I was in 2014 (which saw their last release, an underrated but nonetheless “novelty” Christmas-themed EP), much less the boy I was in 2010. As such, I experienced trepidation as SICK SCENES approached its release date. I’ve historically sealed everything LC!-related in a personal time capsule that I can always access as need dictates; would the pristine pedestal where the band rests in my mind be tarnished by an honest assessment of new material?
I am pleased to report from the front lines that SICK SCENES is easily among the band’s best work. Early reviews of this album seem to be solely preoccupied with a newfound sense of “maturity,” but that’s discounting a large portion of LC!’s work; in many ways, ROMANCE IS BORING still features the most “mature” and daring sense of composition and songwriting the band has been involved with, and HELLO SADNESS is almost entirely absorbed with its own reflections on mortality and the nadir of youth’s optimism. There’s something infinitely more special and layered at the heart of SICK SCENES, something much harder to put a pin on than simple “maturity”: a quiet but confident patina only achieved by veterans of heartbreak, scattered hopes, and shattered dreams. This is an anthemic songbook for those who have been through the trenches: we survived, against all odds, and we’ll continue to, though it’s never going to get any easier.
This dogged determination to continue persevering is reflected in the changes in tone and sound that SICK SCENES represents. The band seems to be colloquially recognized as steadfast purveyors and peddlers of sad. And yes, if HELLO SADNESS is your only reference point (which seems to be the case for large portions of the population), then that’s a hard position to argue against. But NO BLUES saw the band drape a much brighter sheen over their sound, and SICK SCENES largely carries on this trajectory, blending the colorful sonic aesthetics of their 2013 release with the fidgeting and barely-restrained energy of the earliest entries in their discography. The trio of energetic gems that kick off the album is some of the most vital music we’ve heard from LC! in quite some time, with Gareth dropping himself right back in his bratty snarl of 2008 with the (appropriately titled) “Renato Dall’Ara (2008).”
“I Broke Up in Amarante” is a distillation of the essential modern Campesinos!, an immaculately constructed morsel of crisp guitar, synth choral counterpoint, and playfully interposed vocal lines, but “Sad Suppers” is the true highlight of the first half of the album. A drum kickoff will have hardcore fans immediately salivating over a callback to “My Year in Lists,” but the relentless forward progression of the four-on-the-floor and gradual tectonic shifts of intensity act as a perfect blend of “Selling Rope (Swan Dive to Estuary)” and a Springsteenian grasp on building dynamics without an overt change in volume or instrumentation. Topped off with a guitar solo and keyboard arrangements that would be comfortable in an 8-bit or chiptunes track, LC! put their cards in the Crying basket (who they happen to be touring with) and it pays off in spades.
Speaking of Crying’s particular brand of synth-indebted power pop, SICK SCENES proves that these old dogs are still willing to learn new tricks. “Here’s to the Fourth Time!” starts off sounding like nothing else the band has released, throwing caution to the wind and going full synthpop, with a bouncing, youthful core that almost channels something along the lines of Matt and Kim. That is, before a stellar breakdown that gives the album its namesake kicks in, topped off with a compressed blast of distortion that recalls RIB’s “Plan A.” While “Got Stendahl’s” sweeping outro (one of the highlights of the album) and “Hung Empty” also bring their opening act to mind, although mediated by that signature LC! flare, “A Slow, Slow Death” is another point of innovation in their discography. Immediately referencing the lush acoustic backdrops of YOSHIMI BATTLES THE PINK ROBOTS-era Flaming Lips, the track is one of the band’s most unabashed pop ballads, made complete by some breezy horn work that sounds like “In Media Res”’s mellower cousin.
Unfortunately, the song is marred somewhat by one of the album’s weaker lyrical installments, with a rather uninspired, clearly highlighted bridge of, “You / On a lilo / Are an island / Of the Pacific / And then me, me, me / I am face down / In a puddle / On the high street.” However, for the most part, the unapologetic lyrical whimsy that made NO BLUES hard to swallow on occasion (it’s still one of their greatest singles, but I was never sure about “Avocado, Baby”) has mostly been tampered out, apart from the eponymous refrain of “For Whom the Belly Tolls.” Instead we’ve got all the obscure football (oh, sorry, “soccer”) references you’ve come to know and love (you don’t need to look any further than the title of the opener for proof of that), some of Gareth’s trademark wit (the Interpol piss-taking, also from the opener, of, “But things change, now Stella’s a lager and boy she’s always downed”), and what is by far the band’s premiere achievement in terms of making obtuse topics palatable. While “The Sea Is a Good Place to Think of the Future” should be studied for anyone looking for lessons on how to write a long-form verse, “5 Flucloxacillin” is a goddamn achievement: “Found a fiver screwed up inside a prescription receipt / From the salbutamol (No, a gift from the sertraline) / Hallowed be somnolence brought on by the tramadol / Damned be the knowledge that’s it, now you have tried ‘em all.” There is no other musical act on the face of the Earth that could make an entire venue full of people sing that in perfect unison, and you can take that to the bank.
When they’re not effortlessly turning a garden variety collection of anti-depressants into an otherwise entirely accessible gem of indie rock, as mentioned in “Sad Suppers,” the Lusophonic concept of “saudade,” and the struggle with it thereof, is the core cog in the thematic machine that keeps SICK SCENES pushing forward. Defined as a feeling of longing, melancholy, or nostalgia, the most insidious part of saudade is the fact that it can become comforting in its gloomy familiarity, and we can see frontman Gareth struggle with its pull throughout. As confirmed in his interview with the 405, Gareth admits to the fact that throughout his 20s he assumed things would work themselves out and his depression would alleviate itself, only to find that in his 30s, the prognosis looks much the same. As such, a vacuum is created wherein the past is resented as much as it is fetishized. “Sad Suppers” sees our frontman return to the past for shallow comforts in the apex of emotional anxiety (“Never once a miser with the misery / Clever compromise I replant potted history”), “For Whom the Belly Tolls” describes an undefined, cynical search for the sort of contentment or meaning that falls easily into the laps of others (“There is a beauty in the world, I’ve been told by people I’ve nothing but trust in / Piled up with the cotton buds, among the toothpicks, inside the dark of the dustbin”), and, perhaps most powerfully, “Got Stendhal’s” addresses the strange dichotomy we experience in terms of reflection, where we expect all parts of our former lives to be there, unchanged, when we need them to be, but resent the fact that we may play a part in someone else’s saudade when we ourselves have moved on (“I assembled former ghosts at a seance / Said I missed ‘em, you only have to say it once / What I truly fear, maybe selfishly / When I finally rest, someone will summon me”).
Concurrent, yet still related, to this polarizing relationship with saudade is a pining need to return to both literal and metaphorical home. Apart from being directly brought up on the aforementioned “Sad Suppers,” (“Seen all there is to be shown / Darling, I’m coming home”) SICK SCENES proves to be the first time we’ve been exposed to an honest assessment of how 10 years have affected this band. As mentioned above, the first three tracks can be seen as a return to LC!’s sonic roots, most likely as a response to the frustrating way in which NO BLUES was marketed and received. But comparative snarkiness aside, there is a clearly present attempt to reconcile and reconsider the comforts of the past, even as it relates to the lost loves of long ago, as it does on “A Litany/Heart Swells” (“For lovers on the beach whom moon entertains / Theirs always waxing while our crescent wanes”) and “Here’s to the Fourth Time!,” which is inspired by a relationship Gareth had while at university.
But far more important on that track are the openhearted callbacks to simpler times that directly reference the original members’ time together at the University of Cardiff (“All these sick scenes played out in my memory / Wake up, I’ll tell you everything honestly: / ‘Hirwain, Minny, Tewkesbury, or Brook Street,’ / What I’d not give just to have another week”). Gareth and company have been around the block; “Not right to call this old age / But it certainly ain’t youth no more.” (“Hung Empty”) While all of the press make it very clear that they’re excited to be back on the road with a new album under their belt, there’s an inescapable recognition of the hopeless knowledge that things move on without you while you’ve been gone (“Left your hometown, for somewhere new / Don’t be surprised now it’s leaving you,” “The Fall of Home”). As the band themselves are open about, this may just be their most “doomed” album yet, as they’ve staked their claim in the music scene, gone fully independent, for better or worse, and can only take the possibilities of recording or touring again one day at a time.
Most of us listening have been doing so for several years now, and in some regards, this does feel like a record for the fans (although you are a goddamned fool if you can’t get excited about “I Broke Up in Amarante”). Los Campesinos! changed my life because they openly acknowledge the deep melancholy and ennui of daily existence, but not in such a way that doesn’t keep you hoping, often desperately, that there might just be a better tomorrow. But a decade into their career, there seems to be a dawning realization that maybe we’re all not meant for happiness, success, and fulfillment: “Feels like I’ve been waiting on it, nearly all my life / But what, if this is it now, what if this is how we die?” (“Hung Empty”) And yet, what more can we do but continue to keep pushing forward? With the closer’s triumphant refrain of “Hang onto me, and we’ll quarantine the gloom,” I know that the band’s still here for me, and with SICK SCENES, there’s no reason they can’t be there for you too.