David Bowie’s brilliant parting gift Blackstar may already have secured the coveted title of most important album of 2016, but few releases have been more eagerly anticipated than Savages’ second album Adore Life.
Sharing Bowie’s flair for the theatrical, the post punk quartet burst of the scene with the snarling Silence Yourself in 2013.
Ignoring offers from big name producers, the band stuck with singer Jehnny Beth’s long term partner Johnny Hostile for their follow-up, but could they sustain their searing intensity across a second long player?
Matt Catchpole dons the headphones, or should that be ear protectors, to find out.
Things get off to a feverish start with the song chosen as the first single off the album. Driven by a pulsating, unrelenting guitar riff, like a fist hammering on the door, The Answer grabs you by the throat and never lets go. A love song of sorts, with Jehnny Beth entreating: ‘Sleep with me/And we’d still be friends/Or I know/I’ll go insane”. It’s the nearest Savages get to the gut-wrenching, throbbing rhythms of their idols Swans. A brave and brutal beginning.
Slightly more conventional, but equally impassioned, Evil boasts a spidery Gemma Thompson guitar lick, vaguely reminiscent of Magazine’s Shot by Both Sides. Backed by an insistent Krautrock beat, Jehnny Beth warns: ‘Don’t try to change/Or they will hurt you/They will break you’, before the hell-for-leather climax erupts with Jehnny Beth chanting ‘Evil’ like some some fantasy medieval necromancer. Ferociously bonkers.
Cheekily borrowing a lyric from PiL’s Disappointed, Sad Person carries one of they key themes of the album, an urgent striving for something more. ‘Love is a deceit’ Jehnny Beth proclaims, to swathes of spiky, angular guitar from Thompson. Channelling Roxy Music’s Love is the Drug, Jehnny Beth compares the emotion to cocaine, lamenting: ‘The more you have/The more you crave’.
A haunting homage to US poet activist Minnie Bruce Pratt, Adore is an abrupt change of gear, musically, if not lyrically. Set to a sinewy, skeletal bass line from Ayse Hassan, Adore continues the theme of breaking away to explore true desire. Pratt gave up her suffocating, constricted life of husband and children for a relationship with another woman. It’s this refusal to be content with the ordinary, to deny desire, that drives the whole album. ‘Is it human to ask for more/I understand the urgency of life,’ Jehnny Beth entreats in perhaps her most affecting vocal to date.
Slowing Down The World
Shimmering guitar riffs and jazzy bass kick-off one of several overtly sexual songs on the album. I may be reading this wrong, but it’s as if Jehnny Beth is saying that the release of sex can bring a few moments peace from the raging world. Again there’s the message of giving in to desire. “Is it for you I beg/Is it for you I pray/Is it for you I lay down anywhere.’ Heady stuff indeed.
I Need Something New
Virtually a manifesto for the whole album I Need… repeats the mantra of rejecting the staid and comfortable. Bored and disappointed by her lover, Jehnny Beth sings ‘All the words coming out of your mouth, I’ve heard before.’ Rip It up and start again is the message with JB literally ‘kicking at the world’.
When In Love
Upping the energy quotient still further, we get some rollicking post-punk on When In Love. The mood is at once flirtatious and threatening as Jehnny Beth asks; ‘Is it love, or is it boredom/That took me up to your bedroom?
A pulsing mix of treated bass and shards of guitar and keyboards, Surrender is the closest Savages get to a radio friendly stadium-filler. It’s big, ballsy chorus recalls the best of Siouxsie and the Banshees, while a dynamic, game-changing middle eight sees the rhythm section of Hassan and drummer Fay Milton thundering to the fore.
Despite the menace of the title and the sheer violence of the music, T.I.W.Y.G sees Savages at their most playful. A showcase for Thompson’s guitar gymnastics and dizzying solo work, it sets a frenetic pace throughout, building to a climactic finale, with Jehnny Beth repeatedly screaming ‘Mess with love’ until the track closes with a burst of (ironic?) laughter.
The album’s closer is one of the band’s most experimental and elegiac works. Growling industrial rumblings provide the backing as Jehnny Beth searches for the secrets of love-making. ‘I want to learn the touch of love/How you can burn with just one touch’. Eventually her vocals are swallowed up by an ear-splitting roar, redolent perhaps of an all-consuming desire.
All too often second albums are a disappointment. Bands, who have had their whole lives to come up with the music for a first record, simply buckle under the pressure of producing a worthy follow-up,
This is emphatically not the case with Adore Life. The anger is still there, there’s a fist on the cover for heaven’s sake. But this record is markedly more nuanced, controlled and mature than its predecessor -an iron fist but in a velvet glove, if you like.
More than just a collection of songs, it’s a conceptual, but not contrived experience. There are keen minds at work here and this is a record conceived as a whole, with consistent themes of the pursuit of desire and what it means to be human.
That Savages have achieved this with no let up in intensity and excitement constitutes a remarkable achievement. Unless they’re consummate actors, the emotions expressed here are genuine. This lot really mean it. The music remains brutal and uncompromising, but there are hints on Adore, Surrender and Mechanics of a broadening of focus and fast-developing studio craft.
The band say Silence Yourself was the problem and Adore Life the solution, but where does that leave them for the difficult third album? I for one cannot wait to find out.
Adore Life is released on January 22 via Matador Records.
Savages embark on five-date UK tour in support of the album beginning with a show at Bexhill’s De La Warr Pavilion on February 18 and finishing at the Irish Centre, Leeds on February 23.
The band then head off for dates in Europe and the US, before returning to these shores for a climactic show at London’s Roundhouse on March 17. Full details available from http://savagesband.com/#tour.