“Someday, you will have my head—you will have my head on a silver plate….” He is, for some, one of the more polarizing late-night television personalities. Say what you will, or might have already uttered about James Cordon, but in early 2021, he is responsible for introducing North America to Pillow Queens.
The quartet released their debut full-length, In Waiting, in their native Ireland in the autumn of 2020. Reminiscent of when there was often a long gap between the international release of a record and when it arrived in the US, In Waiting officially found its way onto a North American label in November of last year.
Appearing on The Late Late Show through a brief Zoom interview with Cordon, the group also pre-taped a socially distanced, elaborately filmed performance of the soaring, surging tune, “Liffey”. They opened with a haunting, beautiful a cappella round of the four women in Pillow Queens singing the macabre lyric, “Someday, you will have my head—you will have my head on a silver plate,” before the thundering drums and crunchy guitar chords came in.
Four months after the band’s first LP turned up on American shores and roughly a year and a half after it was first issued abroad, Pillow Queens, perhaps to maintain the momentum they have been steadily building, have returned with sophomore full-length, Leave the Light On. It’s abundantly clear from the moment the album begins that the stakes for this set of ten songs are much higher than its predecessor. It’s an album much more gigantic in scope by comparison.
Pillow Queens formed in 2016, and there’s a tightness and tangible confidence in their musicianship that’s much more noticeable on Leave the Light On, as are the slick production values. Pairing again with producer Tommy McLaughlin, who was behind the boards for In Waiting, the enormous nature within the arranging and instrumentation is jaw-dropping. It’s rare for a record to sound this big and this powerful, but Pillow Queens make it seem effortless. Leave the Light On finds Pillow Queens incorporating additional sonic textures—including a subtle synthesizer drone during the intense and hypnotic “Delivered”. They experiment with guitar effects and tones, most noticeable in the opening moments of the album’s smoldering second track, “The Wedding Band”.
Structurally, Leave the Light On is both highly intelligent and unrelenting in the way it plays with the idea of tension and release. It opens with its most anthemic tunes, the album’s first single, “Be By Your Side”, built around the kind of fist-pumping propulsion you cannot help but lose yourself completely in by the time the song reaches its soaring chorus. “Hearts and Minds”, another single, is not quite as explosive in its arranging, but it still reaches the enormous heights the band aims for and is among the most infectiously written of this set.
As much as Pillow Queens have found a formula that works, and works well, in exuberant, guitar-driven songs, Leave the Light On is not complete bombast. They understand restraint, and here, it’s often simmering and unnerving, which creates a surprising juxtaposition that makes those enormous, sing-along moments all the more impactful. They are also capable of “splitting the difference”, which was apparent in some of the slower tempo songs from In Waiting. Here, there is a handful of moments, like “House That Sailed Away”, “No Good Woman”, and “Historian”, that capture a swooning, dreamy feeling, channeling something akin to a 1950s doo-wop kind of sound.
The darkest and moodiest songs, both musically and lyrically, are positioned at the halfway point of Leave the Light On. The snarling, distended sounding guitars on the aforementioned “Delivered” cast an ominous shadow, which builds to a cacophonic and dizzying peak as the music swells. The repetition of the phrase, “I’ve been delivered”, becomes a mesmerizing kind of mantra.
The second half of the record begins with “Well Kept Wife”, which is not as nearly brooding in terms of its arranging—its slinky bassline and rhythm create a slithering groove. It is, however, among the bleakest lyrically. A “story song”, it creates an unsettling narrative in its depiction of the titular wife. The lyric, “No one’s seen or heard from me in a while now”, that opens the chorus, is among the album’s most startling phrase turns.
Lyrically, Leave the Light On is not more ambiguous than the writing on In Waiting. Still, comparatively, Pillow Queens’ debut was slightly more reflective and personal, or at least was more direct in what it addressed—specifically sexual identity, as depicted in the rollicking and aptly titled “Gay Girls”, or that album’s opening track, “Holy Show”.
Pillow Queens are intriguing because it isn’t just one or the other—the lyricism or the instrumentation—that makes the group “work”. It’s the convergence of both elements. A line like, “No one’s seen or heard from me in quite some time”, from “Well Kept Wife”, stands out. But there are myriad other examples of specific lyrics that stop you in your tracks the more you listen, like the eerie, somber, “You kiss me like your lips might just betray the both of us” in “Delivered”. “When everyone around me grows, I fall apart,” is found within the first verse of “Be By Your Side”. There’s the grit teeth fury of, “She learned to talk before you—have you still got nothing to say?” from the swooning “House That Sailed Away”.
Leave the Light On concludes with the lyrically wistful but musically playful “My Body Moves”—the key phrase in the song’s chorus is, “Hold my body till you feel somebody new—anybody but my body. Moves”, and the final, enormous last gasp, “Try Try Try”. Here’s another example of how well Pillow Queens understand structuring and sequencing within an album’s run. If “Be By Your Side” was born to be the attention-grabbing opening, “Try Try Try” was destined to be the brief rush of catharsis at the end. The song, powered by a literal stomping rhythm and a crunchy, cavernous effect on the snare hit, doesn’t soar as high as other moments on the album, but it also doesn’t need to or have to. Instead, it slowly and triumphantly ascends—Leave the Light On, even in its bleakest depictions, is not a hopeless record, but “Try Try Try” is one of the few real moments of optimism, both in writing and arranging.
Following up a debut, especially one as excellent and thoughtful as In Waiting, can challenge an artist. If that record was, among other things, the sound of potential or a promise, Leave the Light On is the sound of that promise being fulfilled. It shows Pillow Queens’ expedient growth and maturation as a band. Leave the Light On sets its aim as high as possible and rarely misses—fun, vast in its soundscape, it effortlessly takes hold of you with its power. But even in that massive scope, it is surprisingly intimate and humanistic, making it just as thoughtful, if not more so, than Pillow Queens’ debut.