The second time as farce
British post-punk has been the stylistic destination of choice for a lot of new bands for at least a decade now. Cutting through the blustery pomp of late Brit Pop with the surgical application of spiky guitars, synths, and ‘80s vocal styles, the likes of Franz Ferdinand, Editors, Liars, and Interpol have brought back memories of acts as diverse as Orange Juice, the Pop Group, Gang of Four, Joy Division, and Echo & the Bunnymen. Coming late to the party has meant that White Lies get criticized not only for copying the original groups (and add Depeche Mode, Gary Numan, and Teardrop Explodes in for good measure), but also for sounding like their more recent predecessors. This hasn’t stopped them from racking up huge sales for their singles and debut album, 2009’s To Lose My Life. Follow-up Ritual presents 10 more slices of memory, mimicry, or momentousness, depending on your tolerance for history repeating itself (which it does, as Marx observed, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce).
If ritual involves being transported from one’s time and place to another world, then this album would initially seem to fit the bill. Once again, we are taken away to that other country that is Britain in the post-punk ‘80s. But ritual covers both the exceptional and the everyday, both those liminal (or at least liminoid) experiences where one removes oneself temporarily from the here and now (church, commemorations, festivals, time travel) and those regularly repeated actions that constituted the often unconscious aspects of our regular lives. Once again, White Lies prove themselves to be everyday rather than exceptional, not only because they sound like others in the here-and-now who are doing this sort of thing, but because their lyrics are so unavoidable (Harry McVeigh’s doom-deep voice is placed center stage in the mix) and so unexceptional.
When McVeigh sings “You were writhing on the floor like a box of molasses” at the beginning of “Holy Ghost”, he sounds like an improvising comedian who’s been asked to come up with a song about sugar in the manner of a gloomy post-punk singer. And when you do something that is in the manner of something that is already mannered, you end up not so much with the farce of repeated history as a kind of preposterous inauthenticity (rather than a convincing inauthenticity, which is one of the markers of great pop). This is only compounded by the lightness of the band’s lyrics and the fact that they don’t seem to realize the bad fit between words and delivery. The mix of registers can be found throughout the album, tempting one to join in with the silliness. Adopt your most gravitas-projecting voice and complete the following line (from “Turn the Bells”): “The marketplace has nothing to sell…”
The opening lines to “Is Love”—“She stares into the mirror/youth fading with the sun”—suggest the band are channeling some sort of late voice, more specifically that voice that comes with late adolescence and the move into adulthood. That would be classic pop territory, one of the things that marks pop as not only transitory pleasure, but a way of mediating the pain and confusion of experience at any stage in one’s life. It’s that seriousness, of course, that one finds in the vocalists to whom McVeigh gets compared (Curtis, Cope, Sylvian). But “Is Love” is no “Love Will Tear Us Apart”; as soon as they can, the band throw in an “uplifting” bass line and some drums that allow for the inevitable lift into euphoric mode and the delivery of a chorus which has “stadium” plastered across it.
And so the ritual goes on. White Lies will continue to be massive at festivals, twisting the late voices of yesteryear into crowd-pleasing anthems. Mobile phones will be held aloft, choruses will be chanted, and hearts will be seen to be worn on sleeves. Perhaps this is what ultimately sets bands like this apart from their post-punk influences. Listening to those earlier bands, one never got a sense of a band deliberately setting out to create festival-friendly “events” (that was left to metal groups, specialists in the art). It may be possible to have an intimate relationship with Ritual, but White Lies’ love of bombast would seem to mitigate against it.