It’s good to try new things. Right? We’re all onboard with that advice. Order the octopus. Go to the matinee at that Bollywood theater. Explore a new neighborhood on your bike. That sort of stuff. And, if you’re a band, try some new instruments in the studio. Usually these will be synths and drum machines. Check them out. Who knows what could happen?
Actually, what usually happens is a critic will end up reviewing your new record, praising you with one side of his mouth for taking risks and complaining with the other side for your band losing something in the process of all this experimentation, something he really liked in your early material.
He will feel pretty bad about that.
Scotland’s The Twilight Sad figured out how to do what so many bands in the last couple of decades couldn’t quite manage: translate Joy Division’s brooding claustrophobia into something more than the component parts of that group’s titanic influence. The Twilight Sad did it by adding swaths of shoegaze noise to its dark mini-epics and, crucially, injecting enough subtle pop songcraft to keep these songs in your head for days and days. For American audiences, it didn’t hurt that singer James Graham’s voice possessed the sort of thick highland brogue that immediately inflates his phrases with a romantic gravity.
The band’s first two records, Fourteen Autumns & Fifteen Winters (2007) and the inexcusably underrated Forget the Night Ahead (2009), saw the perfection of its thunderous sound. When The Twilight Sad released “The Wrong Car,” a one-off 12-inch single, in late 2010, the track had all the hallmarks of the band’s successful pattern: Mark Devine pummelled his drums into submission, Andy MacFarlane slowly layered sheath after sheath of guitar onto an ever more dense mix, and Graham put his baritone to work in telling an ambiguous story of dread and misgivings. But “The Wrong Car” turns out to be something of a feint, as The Twilight Sad’s new album, No One Can Ever Know, shows in short order.
No One Can Ever Know opens with “Alphabet,” a song guided by – as in the past – Devine’s wonderfully simple, effective drumming, a harmonium wheezing in the distance. But where MacFarlane’s guitar would normally churn away, a simple synthesize bass riff pulses. Subtle synth melodies gradually accrue in the verses, the stacking technique the band does so well. It’s a convincing, effective performance, one that opens up even more upon repeated listens. The absence of those huge guitars allows Graham’s voice – stronger and thicker than ever, his range and control much improved from Fourteen Autumns – to hold court, and the singer does so with thrilling results.
“Dead City” follows suit, with Graham screaming himself hoarse while his band lurches behind him. It’s when “Sick” begins, with its simple drum programming, that No One takes its left turn. It’s a chilly, pretty track, focused more on sustaining mood than on the band’s usual fetish for the crescendo. MacFarlane’s synth washes fill the space in tracks like “Don’t Look at Me” and “Another Bed,” and once one gets accustomed to hearing more New Order than Joy Division in The Twilight Sad’s songs, it works. It’s Devine’s absence in these tracks, though, that really begs for apology. His impossibly heavy snare hits and simple, brutal tom fills gave his band’s earlier material some serious violence to lean on, a sense of imminent destruction that perfectly complemented Graham’s often reserved, understated gloom-and-doom. Here, Devine seems neutralized by all these drum pads. Even when he does shine in the mix, it seems apparent that the band wanted to rely less on his crushing technique and more on restraint all around.
It’s good to see The Twilight Sad wandering out of its usual territory. No One Can Ever Know simply isn’t the same kind of record as Forget the Night Ahead, as intent as it is on getting its emotional core across through what noise the band doesn’t make, instead of cranking everything into the red. It’s also an album that rewards patience and careful attention; the band has always known how to capitalize on subtlety, but now it’s the name of the game. Still, it’s hard not to miss the sense of near-apocalyptic volume threatening to overtake The Twilight Sad’s songs. If No One Can Ever Know turns out to be a transitional record, it should be exciting to see what’s on the other side.