The New Life
Jeff Pearson, February 26, 2013
Listen: “The New Life”
The most immediately striking thing about Girls Names’ second full-length LP, The New Life, is the obvious change in their sound; the band more typically thought of as a fitting accompaniment to a sunny beachside stroll has found their sound land on more gloomy days. The image that popped into my head after my initial listen was an alteration of an iconic photo of The Cure, sitting on some steps looking disinterested, but instead of the wholly black garb they donned in the original, they were looking relaxed in floral board shorts, tank tops and flip-flops. Robert Smith may or may not have one of his wild locks beaded and braided. I realized after repeated listens that this isn’t the transformation occurring at all. This isn’t a brooding outfit finding warmer days; it is the other way around, with not much sunshine to be found. The New Life is the Belfast quartet trading in their flip-flops and leaving combat boot prints all over the sandcastles of the beaches where they once found solace.
As lead singer Cathal Cully puts it, however, it was the first record, Dead To Me, that really defied the band’s true identity–rather than The New Life redefining it. “That record was just a bunch of quickly cobbled together songs, not much thought or meaning to it. Very naïve, which maybe made it charming for some people,” not wanting to sound too flippant about the debut, but he clearly puts more stock in the more cohesive statement put forth on The New Life. It’s the record they were meant to make–the type of records that Girls Names will likely, thankfully, be making going forward.
Aside from the shifting style, the stunning growth in quality on The New Life is undeniable–whether the two aspects have a direct relationship to one another is dependent on a listener’s taste, I suppose. The record immediately grabs hold with “Portrait” and “Pittura Infamante” (which fittingly translates to “defaming portrait”), a one-two punch of lush ambient intro into menacing post-punk roil led by Claire Miskimmin’s piercingly dark bass. Cully’s lyrics feel much less connected to matters of the heart; “Come back, to worship your skin / Reminders, thoughts, the purest thoughts,” seems stream-of-consciousness in nature and unfiltered through and traditional songwriting lens. In making music that is a bit more obtuse, they have made a radical shift from somewhat expendable to something of concrete importance.
It’s odd how that works, really. With Dead To Me they made a safe record, one that anyone could pick up at any point and relatively enjoy–The New Life commands your attention from start to finish and garners the respect that such a demand requires. In crafting a record in this way, it proves to be both immediately rewarding and constantly revealing more of itself upon repeated listens. “Hypnotic Regression” and “Occulation” continue the trend of dark post-punk brushstrokes, with Cully deeply crooning atop the minimal arrangements. They feel very skeletal in nature; drummer Neil Brogan’s brightly produced backbone is steady and constant alongside Miskimmin, giving Cully and Phillip Quinn a relatively empty canvas to ease in and out of with their bell-like guitars. The New Life is a lesson in craft; each sparingly-used brushstroke feels monumental in scale.
It is fitting, then, that the entire record should naturally build to a peak in the titular track. At over seven minutes in length, “The New Life” builds an intense amount of tension before actually ending on a hopeful note. It’s a testament to the record that it doesn’t come as a complete shock to the system to the listener to hear the brightly-lit strands of song send the record off; there were moments all throughout the record where uplifting chords mingled with the darkness ever-looming, perhaps teasing the release that would come in “The New Life.” It’s for this reason that when Cully says, “Sleepless nights will come / Meet through my darkest days,” that we are left to believe those days have come and gone.