Glass Animals take one step forward, two steps back
Christian Bunker | Thursday, September 8, 2016
The Oxford, England-based quartet Glass Animals is one of those bands that evade easy categorization into a genre. Equal parts indie rock and electronica, their music often sounds positively tribal yet owes a clear debt to the Bristol trip-hop scene of the nineties. However, no matter what genre you put them in, their music is primarily atmospheric. Layers of synths, percussion, vocals and guitar electronic effects create a lush and inviting sonic world. This is where Glass Animals truly excel — the band’s talent for crafting sound was already made evident by killer tracks such as “Intruxx” and “Black Mambo” off of “ZABA,” the band’s previous album. This unique talent is continued on the new record, “How to Be a Human Being,” in the likes of “Cane Shuga” and “The Other Side of Paradise.” The album also features equally entrancing tracks such as “Season 2 Episode 3” and “Mama’s Gun” that deviate noticeably from the previous Glass Animals mold, yet still find ways to captivate the listener. However, on their sophomore album the band attempts to fashion a concept to link the music together, and this is where the album falters.
Glass Animals are adept at creating dense instrumentals. In this case, however, such a skill clashes with their attempt to establish a concept across the record. Accomplishing such a task is highly dependent on meaningful lyrics, which are often best placed against sparse arrangements. With the Glass Animals’ atmospheric sound, lyrics are just one out of the many layers of a given song. Imagine how hard it would be to follow “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts,” if Dylan had overdubbed synths and a hypnotic bassline. Who can be bothered to care what lead singer Dave Bayley is saying while the maddening beats of “Cane Shuga” crowd out the vocals?
Ironically, if the band was unaware of this trade-off, I believe the album still would have turned out quite well. We could have all pretended that the title was another meaningless tetragram and enjoyed the music. Instead, though, they appear to make a conscious effort to keep parts of the album stripped down to avoid masking the lyrics. In an interview with Paste Magazine, the band said that “Cane Shuga” was “the only track on the record that didn’t start with lyrics” when it was being written. This reveals an unfortunate preoccupation with concept rather than sound that seems to have placed a talented band on the path to a subpar album.
That’s not to say the record is without its high points. The aforementioned “Cane Shuga” makes for an obvious high point. “Mama’s Gun” is an even more enjoyable and creative song, and its sampled flute might be the best use of that instrument since “Olsen Olsen.” The energetic latter halves of “Take a Slice” and “Life Itself” also have considerable merit. However, it’s frustrating to wade through a record of so much unreached potential; much of the record presents repressed beats designed to showcase lyrics that can’t rationalize their place in the spotlight. Don’t even get me started on the hopelessly trite filler “[Premade Sandwiches].” Running “Fitter Happier” through a meat grinder a couple of times, speeding up the result, then putting it in the middle of an album doesn’t make it a concept album; it just becomes another track to skip.
In all honesty, I’m not giving Glass Animals a hard time because they’re bad, I’m giving them a hard time because they’re good and I know they can do better. Their new album shows them taking a musical step forward, but their preoccupation with concept and lyrics amount to a simultaneous two steps back. So while “How to Be a Human Being” probably isn’t one to add to your vinyl collection, keep an eye out for a (hopefully more straightforward) sequel.