This review was originally published to The Edge on October 6th 2016
There’s a lot to say about the influence of the 80s on modern culture. The decade’s sounds resonate in acts like Blossoms and Bastille, who appear to be balms for people who aren’t fans of the prevalence of electronica and R&B in modern Pop. This nostalgia is in the text, context, and metatext of so much media: Stranger Things drips with it, whether or not it’s a positive thing for you; Sing Street, set in that decade, emanates a deep love of the music and experience of youth; the number of modern teens who continue to love John Hughes’ films, usually because they tend to capture a sense of the extremes and angst of youth and relationships, speaks for itself. (Sidebar:Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is a badly made and evil film.)
In many ways, Friends is no different to any other cultural molecule in this wave. Its songs are steeped in fizzy, synth-driven melodies: the sparkly magic of the early textures and central melody of ‘Take It Out On Me’, and its wildly enthusiastic chorus help you to forget that it’s basically ‘Take On Me.’ ‘Don’t Want To Feel It All,’ a song that is already good before it hits the chorus, brings us steel drums to recall ‘Club Tropicana’ and ‘Copacabana.’ As much as White Lies channel those that came before, their musical arrangements have just enough complexity and experimental branches outwards to be distinct. It’s small things, like the way ‘Summer Didn’t Change A Thing’ hits a higher bass note as one bar ends; or its the big things.
‘Hold Back Your Love’ makes a true shift in its bridge, building a distinct feeling for the final chorus. Synths swirl around each other, enveloping, pushing, and pulling at Harry McVeigh’s vocals, fading in and out. We long to hear his voice clearer as he longs for a connection he denies himself (“If you hold back your love / How will I know? / Hold back your love / You know that I’ve had my doubts”). It’s a delicious cocktail of profound negativity – sadness, denial, blindness, blame. He touches a similar idea in ‘Don’t Want To Feel It All’ as a lead guitar’s power chords intensify, a new addition that makes a musical surprise, imperiously crooning “No I’m not going to break your heart / But I might use it / No I’m not going to break your heart / Or even bruise it” – and we barely believe he believes his own words.
McVeigh is half the reason that Friends’ use of 80s sounds feels sincere rather than trend-baiting. When the band’s been on point in the past, it’s often because he can’t quite hit the high notes. Think of ‘Death,’ when he chanted the bonkers lyric “I live on the right side and sleep on the left / That’s why everything’s got to be love or death.” His remarkably small range, brooding yet grandstanding in sound, has a magisterial power whenever he aims at high pitch, elevating lyrics on Friends that lack the genius of To Lose My Life. There’s one astonishing line on the heart-breaking ‘Come On’ amongst many more forgettable lyrics: “Love is just a word that ties/The gap between you and I.” That track, along with the other nine, is musically crafted within an inch of its life. Those marvellous synths build and dismantle each other, occasionally letting the familiarly punchy guitar work join in, while Jack Lawrence-Brown’s drumming and those vocals lend control and direction. They’re all layered on top of one another, like the deliriously sweaty, and exhausted participants of an orgy. And there’s no deep conversation in orgies.
This is not to say that the lyrics are a wash of blandness – sometimes all that’s needed to communicate meaning is a sensational riff. The chorus line of ‘Don’t Fall’ is fun, but I’m not sure it makes much sense. What I do know is that the cascading guitar riff behind it feels like the dawn; like lying in bed with someone you love; like being alone with a peaceful and profound emptiness; like realising having your hair held back while you vomit into the toilet is what makes your friendship great. Friends shouldn’t have worked wonders on me, the sceptic of nostalgia. But sounds just like the above make me nostalgic for a past I’ve lived, and a way that I saw the world.
Friends is released on October 7th by BMG