The Paper Chase have always revelled in their own sinister side. I say “side” as if there is a hidden underbelly of sunshine, but there is scant light to balance out the caustic shadow cast by the dead bodies, dead relationships, and death threats that have haunted the band’s four previous studio albums. We are talking John Congleton, after all; a songwriter whose most tender moments come armed with cannibalistic declarations like “I want your head / I want your wicked parts / I want to wring out your evil thoughts / I want to eat out your bitter heart”. But however much we’ve come to expect the Paper Chase’s gothic melodrama, how much we’re acclimatised to their malevolent bent and their lyrical, instrumental, and emotional butchery, a two-piece concept set imagining the widespread annihilation of human life is nothing if not bleak.
That — or the first half of it — is precisely what we have in Someday All This Will Be Yours Vol.1 (“all this”, if you hadn’t already guessed, can be found roughly six feet under). Each of its ten tracks comes with a conventional title as well a parenthetical reminder of the many ways for the breath to be whisked permanently from our lungs to be. So there is, for example, “The Common Cold (The Epidemic)”, “Your Money or Your Life (The Comet)”, and “This is a Rape (The Flood)”. Truly, it’s a bright, bright sunshiny day.
This is more than some disparate litany of distant apocalyptic perils, however. There’s a deeper and more germane thread running through the album that knots up most completely on the closer, “We Have Ways to Make You Talk (The Human Condition)”, in which Congleton goads, as close as he ever approaches composure, “You thought you could have it all / But now you’ve had your first new fall / And it’ll bury you all”. Something that is hinted at throughout Someday is in that moment seized upon properly — and the album’s nagging sense of pertinence to this war-shredded and stock market-orchestrated epoch of the western world becomes transparent. Whether Congleton intends this whole concept as an extended, multi-faceted metaphor for humanity’s inherently self-destructive condition, or whether just likes dreaming up different ways for us all to die, it’s easy to recognize the vaingloriously twisted priorities of consumerist modernity and its empty environmental promises in his vision: “We’ll spit-shine our shoes and push down our cowlicks / And tailor our suits and suck in our stomachs / And try to ignore that we’re all aboard the Titanic.”
Perversely, though, this removal of the dark shawl of nihilism from the shoulders of the individual, and this tossing it instead over the collective human race, coincides with the Paper Chase being at their most accessible. Don’t get me wrong, there’s been precious little adjustment to, never mind an overhaul of, the sound of 2006’s Now You Are One of Us. What change there are come less in terms of the actual music and more in the scarcity of found sound and mood-setting atmospheric interludes. Like before, though, there’s an unsettling disharmony in Someday‘s wayward instrumentation, with sharpened shanks of guitar, piano, and violin slicing across each other, scrawled from top to tail in Congleton’s restless and deliciously baleful cogitation. And as ever, there would be a suggestion of shambles if it were not for those timely and often brilliant smoke-clearing moments where everything abruptly slides into place and achieves an unlikely and startling clarity.
There is an undoubted — if familiar — brilliance in the way the Paper Chase are able to maneuver with such ease from the darkest, most atonal of corners to tidal surges of melody and not come off sounding contrived. It’s a trick that works most outstandingly when the sludgy march of “If Nobody Moves Nobody Will Get Hurt (The Extinction)” begins its triumphant assault of strings and guitar, sounding at once both exultantly liberating and disquietingly menacing. As the record’s icebreaker, it is the first of several reminders that there’s a deceptively melodic songwriter locked inside Congleton’s straitjacket. Don’t believe for a minute, though, that he plans on letting it loose.