With Babes Never Die, Honeyblood stirs up a scuzzy rock storm filled with pop hooks that gets better the deeper you dig.
On their self-titled debut album, Honeyblood managed the difficult feat of finding new ways to tell familiar dark tales of heartbreak, isolation and rejection. Singer Stina Tweeddale observed the fractured and fraught interpersonal relationships of others and crafted intelligent songs that blurred the line between autobiography and fiction. The resultant album was a refreshingly ragged pop/rock album. Recorded in just 13 days, it is unsurprising that it sounded so urgent and raw. It was as vital a debut from a rock band as has been heard over the last five years and one that rightly gave them valuable critical cache.
Like any band who records an album so quickly with no outside pressure, the subsequent concern was that any follow-up couldn't possibly live up to expectations. After all, excessive time spent on the road would leave them without any carefully observed tales to tell. As is often the case, the songs would become unrelatable, emotionally blunt anecdotes of time spent on tour. Additionally, whereas the first album was recorded in a mad blur in LA, they now had the time to polish the rough edges in the studio. The exuberant rush of their debut would be replaced by horn sections, orchestral parts, and hackneyed attempts at epic songwriting. Now that the follow-up, Babes Never Die, has finally surfaced, I'm happy to say that the only thing that's changed here is that the duo have become better songwriters. The songs are tighter and the hooks are sharper, yet the raw, almost voyeuristic intimacy of the first LP remains.
First single “Ready For the Magic” is a sharp pop-rock stomper reminiscent of '90s shoegazers Lush at their most direct. It’s a refined mix, combining a downbeat, grungy riff with bouncy, fizzing rhythms. It’s a taught and catchy blitz of a song that gives a perfect indication of how far the band has come since its debut. The title track, “Ready For the Magic”, and “Sea Hearts” are all rousing paeans to the importance of self-belief and never giving up. They are instantly relatable, irrespective of gender. While this is no feminist manifesto, these songs could just as easily be perceived as inspiring anthems for disaffected women everywhere. “Sea of Hearts”, in particular, is a devil-may-care call for women to ignore what others might think of them. There’s a refreshing attitude of throwing caution to the wind, as Tweeddale nonchalantly denounces the seriousness of getting your heart broken with this apathetic line: “Hey Hey, it's just a little heartbreak." The run of superior, upbeat rock songs continues with the magnificent “Love Is a Disease”, which, at first, seems to be a celebratory tale about falling in love, but then reveals itself to be a cautionary tale about the perils of jumping heart-first into a relationship. It's a catchy as anything they've ever done.
After the energetic rush of the opening pieces, the album slows down with “Walking at Midnight”. It’s a breezy number with a lo-fi sound reminiscent of early Best Coast, and it perfectly highlights Tweeddale’s abilities as a singer. Her voice possesses an arresting clarity that dominates the song, something that can be said for much of the album. Nonetheless,the sweet and airy melody hides a seemingly darker subject matter. Here lies the durability of the album; on closer inspection, many of the songs belie the jagged, perky pop of the songs. “Justine, Misery Queen”, for instance, has the subject duped in some way over summery, surfer-rock backing vocals, while “Sister Wolf” analyses the darker side of sisterhood with a predatory woman pursuing a lover with the ominous warning of "she’s gonna come after you". “Hey, Stellar” voices the sheer relief of the protagonist escaping a failing relationship with the chorus: "it feels good to finally let you go". As a listener, you can’t help but share their joy at finally breaking free.
The darkest moment on their debut was undoubtedly the well-observed examination of domestic violence on “Choker”. It cleverly analysed the feelings of the delusional victim who, despite everything, maintained that their abuser still loved them. On this album, “Cruel” plays out like a companion piece to “Choker”. Over a gently plucked electric guitar line, the apologetic abuser pleads that their intentions are good. This might sound like heavy going, but the sweet pop backing stops the song from becoming overbearingly melancholic. As for the proper final song, “Gangs”, it ends things with a rock swagger, as it eases itself to a down-tuned chorus that grunge pioneers Soundgarden would be proud of.
Simply matching their debut would've been admirable enough, but that fact that Honeyblood have pushed their songwriting further while retaining the ability to weave universally identifiable themes over spiky pop-rock songs is astonishing. By embracing the limitations of being a two piece, they have played to their obvious strengths as a band. Multiple listens reveal a dark heart to their pointed pop sound, yet the record still acts as a call to arms to those who find themselves in difficult situations. This is an album that is built to last.