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White Lung: Paradise

On Paradise, the change is not just one of production and fidelity. It's also one of attitude and perspective, and when this album runs at full throttle, it heads down some lesser-traveled roads through rock music.

White Lung


US Release: 2016-05-06
Label: Domino
UK Release: 2016-05-06
Artist Website
Label Website

Even though Vancouver punk outfit White Lung's last album was titled Deep Fantasy, it's on their new album, Paradise, that the band really makes a break for it. The album separates itself from any expectations—save, perhaps, volume and speed—that come out of White Lung's previous records. In their place, we get a new set of rules, a new set of sounds. The change is not just one of production and fidelity, though this is likely the first one listeners notice. It's also one of attitude and perspective, and when this album runs at full throttle, it upends standard tropes and punk expectations and suggests some lesser-traveled roads through rock music.

In the band's official bio for the new record, singer Mish Barber-Way seems pretty concerned with breaking out of a perceived punk-rock ghetto. "There's this stupid attitude that only punks have where it's somehow uncool to become a better songwriter," she says in conversation with St. Vincent's Annie Clark. There's some truth to this, although it might only pinpoint a particular and particularly immature vein of punk rock. Still, White Lung takes this limitation as a challenge and breaks past it on Paradise. This separates from the break-neck fury of Sorry or the shadowy, grimy crunch of the band's breakthrough Deep Fantasy. In place of these sounds is something far more refined, something that sounds intentionally modern. Anne-Marie Vassiliou's drums are crisp, Kenneth William's guitars treated to a sheen but also with new sorts of distortion, and Barber-Way's vocals are as big and clear as they have ever been.

The resulting songs are built more for arenas than basement shows. Opener "Dead Weight" makes this clear with its huge, tumbling riffs, walls of chords, and Barber-Way's layered, huge vocals on the chorus. This new focus on production and building songs in the studio gives the band a new breadth and size. At its best, this allows them to reveal careful details to the listener. "Below" is a perfect example. The echoing guitars seem borrowed from the most airy parts of the Cure, but they wrap themselves around Vassiliou's tom work, and Barber-Way's voice trades in its old shred for a new sort of baying, the kind of thing that glides over the spaces the song has created. For a band that hasn't made a record over a half-hour long—Sorry was 19 minutes—this three-and-a-half minute track is a surprisingly patient moment, but one that doesn't lose any of its bite. "Kiss Me When I Bleed" couples bright swirls of guitar with one of the album's most anthemic choruses. "Hungry" peels back some of the neon brightness of the other songs, tightening up the drums and leaning out the guitars to show that there's more to the record than blinding volume.

The songs also break from other expectations, beyond just sonic ones. They also sometimes start from expected places. "Kiss Me When I Bleed" is about a rich woman who falls for a (presumably poor) garbage man. It's the kind of class-hopping story we've heard before, one we may even be tired of, but there's such defiance in Barber-Way's lyrics. "I will give birth in a trailer / breathing the gas in the air," she sings, half-howling each line, before continuing, "baby is born in molasses / like I would even care." If the individual decision as class revolt seems a bit simplistic, the pure fury with which this declaration of happiness is delivered is still effective. In fact, Paradise is in some ways about carving out a personal space, a life you want, as an act of defiance. This may fly in the face of punk politics, but White Lung doesn't seem to care. When it's done right, it's pretty damn effective. Barber-Way, newly married and happy, uses the title track as a plea to her new husband to "bow out with me / ride south with me." She assures him "they'll never hear our copulating."

These songs are aimed at smaller victories, personal ones, ones aimed at your own happiness. Perhaps more largely, it's about how varied individual ways of looking at the world and seeking out what it has to offer is more complicated than a community perspective built on consensus. Paradise raises these questions well when it's at its most personal. This perspective can be awfully limited when the language isn't sharp, and songs like "Demented" and "I Beg You" are too abstract or vague to see where they are going.

In other places, the new musical direction—one aimed at breaking free from constraints—finds its own limits. The whole production has a sort of chilling feel, which can be effective. But the more layered the songs get—like the thick chorus of "Narcoleptic" or the big finish of "Sister"—that chill creates a distance. In those moments, the sound is so big it pushes the listener away rather than bringing us in. Overall, though, the new direction works. It keeps the band from repeating itself and manages to remind that sometimes the most furious rock songs aren't always about anger; they're about honesty. The kind of individualized honesty here, in lesser hands, could seem insular. But Paradise has White Fang reaching out a hand where before they might have just raised a fist.


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