At the heart of Peggy Sue’s second album is a darkness, a palpable unease, which is undoubtedly alluring, but which is not entirely new to the Brighton band. Their debut album Fossils and Other Phantoms may have been linked with the UK nu-folk scene, but it dealt with the ambiguities and grey areas of relationships. Acrobats is no Beatles for Sale, no abrupt admission by a sunny pop band that yes, love can be messy and complicated and fraught with difficulties. Instead, this tense and highly-charged album is part of the progression of a group that was once called Peggy Sue and the Pirates into a mature outfit increasingly in control of its own promising destiny.
What has changed dramatically as part of that progression is that, in place of Peggy Sue’s previous folk, Acrobats is essentially a rock album. Opener “Cut My Teeth” rings in the changes that endure throughout the record: Olly Joyce now makes a significantly larger contribution from the drum kit, acoustic guitars are excised from all but one track, and growling electrics become the foundation of the sound. Occasional bursts of strings and the galloping, almost bluegrass pace of “D.U.M.B.O.” ensure the set retains a few folk characteristics, but Acrobats nevertheless depicts a band taking an aggressive leap forward into a new style.
Against all these welcome developments, what keeps Peggy Sue grounded is the vocal landscape explored by vocalists Katy Beth Young and Rosa Slade. More often than not, their solid and subtly contrasting voices intertwine in the most complimentary way, demonstrated perhaps most satisfyingly on the glockenspiel-driven “Parking Meter Blues”. The way the agile vocal melodies dance around the guitar lines is one of the most compelling features of an album which not only survives repeated listens but rewards them with a growing understanding of the level of craft in these stark, wiry songs.
But while the songwriting and performances here showcase a poise and precision befitting of the album’s title, releasing label Wichita has alluded to another level of meaning. Acrobats is, apparently, concerned with “the momentum of human bodies” and if that sounds like a sly euphemism for sex then it is with good reason. A growing thematic interest in sex and lust is a noted tendency in second albums, and Peggy Sue’s focus in that area contributes significant emotional fuel to these songs. Coy references to beds are seemingly everywhere, and when Young and Slade sing of not knowing where a lover’s mouth ends and where theirs begins, it is a temperature-raising moment.
If there is a lyric that in some way encapsulates Acrobats, however, it is surely the memorable one from “Changed and Waiting”. “What do I have to do to prove to you”, it begins, “I am not the one you should hold on to?” Peggy Sue is on the move, stylistically and thematically – they refuse to be pinned down. In keeping with that, this is a second album which fits within rock’s grand audience-challenging tradition; with each uncoiling guitar figure and emotionally wrenching passage, with each song that passes without the chime of an acoustic guitar, Peggy Sue ask, “How do you like us now?” The answer, given enough listens, will be very much indeed. Clearly the product of a great deal of work and expressive of a fascinating atmosphere of weight and tension, Acrobats is one of the finest returns of the year.
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// Notes from the Road
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