Literature have spunk, verve, pluck. Their songs tend to skip and jump and breeze by. Their 2012 debut LP Arab Spring was one of that year’s indie-pop delights, a rough, charming run-through of singalong pop anthems. The more highly produced follow-up, their Slumberland Records debut Chorus, strikes the same tone while feeling altogether more developed. It is a huge step forward for the band, while preserving all of the most attractive qualities of the debut.
The album’s carefree, energetic tone is struck by the first sound of the first song, someone exclaiming, “woo!” That yelp and the crowd noise running through it lend a party atmosphere to a song that might have had it already, with its fast pace and vaguely ‘60s rave-up feeling.
On the one hand, the Philadelphia-based group sort of recalls British Invasion-type bands, through their nonstop hooks and the kind of British-sounding vocals. My visual image when I listen is a young, cheery, head-nodding band; hot new sensations, something like the band in the film That Thing You Do but cooler and better. At the same time, in spirit and sound there’s just as much, or more, ‘80s UK indie-pop: Field Mice, Felt, etc. And other ‘80s touchpoints: a Cure-like bassline here, some New Order synths there. There’s lushness, romanticism and an inherent siding with the lonely and the sad that recalls that era even when there are audible echoes of earlier rock-pop eras and styles.
Matters of the heart are at the forefront, as they should be in pop music. A few songs seem directed towards would-be lovers or at least people the song’s protagonist feels affection for or wants to support, like on the first single “The English Soft Hearts”. That’s one of several songs where they seem to be speaking for the introverted and lonely, whether they’re singing about themselves or others. A lyric that jumps out in that regard comes from “Blasé”: “there he is / There he goes / Smelling the flowers / And going for broke.” That combination, go-for-broke and stopping to smell the flowers, seems like the key to the band’s approach.
For all of the album’s speed and hook-cramming, there’s a softness throughout that can be surprising. On a song like “Jimmy”, they start off locked in, playing loud ‘rock’ music, but seconds later, they’ve turned towards the sweet and the gentle. On “Chime Hours”, they go the furthest towards adopting downtempo sway, tilting towards Clientele-like dreamy territory while retaining the same drive as on the most hyper of their anthems.
As rollicking as the album is, there always seems to be more going on under the surface than your listening mind I grasping. The first song’s title, “The Girl, the Gold Watch and Everything” somehow encapsulates the film noir and nouvelle vague feelings that creep to the surface at times, on purpose or not. If we’re going to think of music in terms of literary genres, there is something of the crime and mystery novel here, even when they’re singing about shy boys’ concerns and struggles. The last song, “Kites”, always stops me with its lyric, “I see your face every time someone dies”, leaving me wondering whose face and why. That is a key part of Literature’s rare charm, the way they rely on velocity and gentleness to inspire feelings and questions at every turn.