Friday, August 7, 2020

Review: Dreamland • Glass Animals

The COVID-19 crisis has provided us no choice but to change the way we write, produce, promote, and listen to music. Since the viral disease proved serious enough for the world to shutter its doors on non-life supporting functions and typical human interaction as winter neared its end, no art has been analyzed without the lens of self-isolation. The concept of a "quarantine record" has become a cliché for albums released while we can enjoy them only alone, from the comfort of our makeshift work-from-home stations. Charli XCX led the charge to document the do-it-yourself hobbyist approach to her newest record, and Taylor Swift recently revolutionized the concept when capturing the emotions that are left to bang between the walls of our empty homes.

Dua Lipa and Fiona Apple were among the first to have found the narratives around their newest records re-framed into quarantine's terms; Lipa's otherwise club-ready sophomore release was lauded for allowing its listeners a personal getaway from silence, while Apple's already elusive lifestyle and introspective songwriting lent themselves seamlessly to the new normal in 2020. And with their third record, English pop outfit Glass Animals join these ranks. After having its pre-release tour canceled due to mass gathering concerns and its release pushed back to prevent adding digital noise at the peak of the Black Lives Matter protests, Dreamland has been redefined by its time period despite bearing compelling signs of growth and a personal narrative detached from global conversation points.

On the band’s 2016 sophomore release, How to Be a Human Being, Bayley translated his first years as a touring artist through characters based on those he met and questioned along the way – a method that charged fictional characters with the responsibility to speak on his own experiences. Though Bayley tends to write his tunes in second-person on Dreamland – singing directly to his subject, as if we aren’t here to spectate –  he provides a bystander’s uncomfortable perspective on – and relief from – a lifetime’s worth of trauma, not just a six-month residency in abnormality. With its titular track, Bayley introduces the record as his own rejuvenation, hinting at lasting memories that will be explored in later tracks with vivid intensity: "That first friend you had, that worst thing you said, that perfect moment, that last tear you shed, all you've done in bed, all on Memorex," he lists off from the contents that float within Dreamland.

Bayley credits this record’s self-confrontational approach to an accident that halted the band in 2018, when a truck hit drummer Joe Seaward while he was riding a bicycle. And although the incident, which caused life-threatening brain injuries and required extensive rehabilitation for Seaward, is never directly referenced in song on Dreamland, the event triggered a retrospective on moments in which Bayley felt just as vulnerable. Suspending the few seconds of dead air that occurs between breaking bad news and the response it elicits into a four-minute pressure cooker, "It's All So Incredibly Loud" might best capture discomfort. Its unorthodox structure swells under the suspense but never pops. It's also an interesting take to hear him crawl through tragedy on “Domestic Bliss,” his voice creaking to match his uncertainty when he witnessed habitual domestic abuse at a childhood friend’s home: “Why do you smile when he cries? Why do you cry when he wins?”

The band's debut record, Zaba, was heralded for its mystique and humid ambiance, which both eroded from their work over time but have been replaced with sharper musicality and frankness without losses in the band's finesse. Even within the gloomy jungles of Zaba resided indications that Glass Animals would morph into what is heard on Dreamland. The band's deep percussive nature, for example, remains their modus operandi, but their rumbling foundation's edges are better defined with sharp beat samples. Hip-hop sensibility lends itself perfectly to Bayley's strongholds in repetition and rhythm, while the band's lyrics and favor for low-fi synthesizers – in particular, check out the whiny horror flick synths and spacey samples on "Space Ghost Coast to Coast," a dark ode to a friend who tried to commit a school shooting – keeps the record from falling into anonymous streaming fodder.

The band's pivot is perhaps most evident on "Hot Sugar," a mutant slow jam that simmers just below boiling point, or "Toyko Drifting," a chest-puffing warehouse banger drenched in vocal alterations and equipped with the album's most assertive production. But nearly every song on Dreamland is instantly stickier than expected due to effective implementation of ticking hi-hats and pounding beats over faux-vintage synthesizers and simple hooks. "Tangerine" guns for an eight-bit video game aesthetic, employing a killer vocal line and textured plucked synth more effectively than even Drake’s "Hotline Bling" – a close cousin to this one’s instrumentation. Standout track "Heat Waves," meanwhile, embodies its name only in its studio form, in which a sturdy beat chops up deep wobbly synths. In stripped form, the song is rooted in fragility rather than magnetic appeal – and perhaps that's the point.

Dreamland may journey into the abstract much less than the band’s previous records, but its balance between straightforwardness and poetic imagery is something to be admired. The record scrapbooks repressed memories and splices in some stray thoughts – admittedly, we all have drifting thoughts of "big dicks and big 'ol titties on the sly" from time to time, don't we? – while gluing them over the band’s sharpest melodies and most gratifying instrumental visions yet. Not if, but when 2020 in the fine arts can be viewed through rose-toned reminiscence a few years (or maybe a few decades) from now, Dreamland could be misfiled as an oasis from quarantine. Though it is just that in some ways, what's more memorable is what we learn about Dave Bayley through his processing of the people who molded him well before 2020 – and he just happened to put it all to some pretty rad music, too.

Dreamland is available now under Wolf Tone Records.

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