“I need something new”, sings Jehnny Beth midway through Adore Life. The Savages’ frontwoman follows up swiftly, with a disgusted “Are the words coming out of your mouth gonna be something I’ve heard before?”. It’s a question one could probably ask of Beth and her bandmates with regards to their place in the musical canon and their second full-length album as a whole.
Now, can anybody still be original in pop music? Could they ever? And if what sets Savages apart is the militant control they hold over their public image (be that their fashion, interviews or live performances) rather than their music, is what they are doing all that bracing, or have we been too quick to project greatness onto them? The concept of ‘originality’ is generally overrated, and its cult will certainly dwindle until it is solely made up of Mojo subscribers, but listening to Adore Life, one may sometimes wonder where these Anglo-French empresses bought their new clothes.
It’s reassuring to know that champions of the band, including 6Music’s Marc Riley, felt the same initial uneasiness before submitting to the propulsive force of 2013’s Silence Yourself . Their sophomore effort ploughs the same abrasive post-punk furrow, although some of Savages’ energy and hostility has been lost in the intervening years.
Comparatively, Adore Life leans a little heavier on the post than the punk. Although that is to its slight detriment, the slackening intensity reveals an openness and vulnerability that had been zealously hidden before. ‘Adore’ is the most obvious beneficiary, allowing listeners a glimpse at Beth’s insecurities while building to a cathartic release unrivalled in the Savages catalogue.
Over the course of five minutes, Beth questions how she can embrace humanity when it is repeatedly felled with such spirit-crushing mundanity. Her doubts are dispelled at the song’s triumphant climax. The final refrain of “I adore life / Do you adore life?” is delivered with all the steely, jaw-clenching power that the band are so often ascribed, making for a riposte that smirks derisively in the face of cynicism and misanthropy – enough to convert anyone to Beth, Savages and their cause.
That vulnerability also makes for some tawdry lyrical content, however. Starkness is revealed to be banal simplicity, and Beth too often relies on imagery and thematic binaries that recall all the worst clichés of the soul-bearing artist. Love/hate, demons/angels, dark/light: each comes around the next corner with such regularity, that you’re not even surprised when you bump in them. It is definitely love that weighs heaviest on Beth’s mind, although sex and politics occasionally arise to break up the monotony. ‘When in Love’ and ‘TIWYG’ (“This is what you get when you mess with love”) clock in at just over three minutes each but miss the target entirely. Their tempo and energy, as dictated by Gemma Thompson’s unhinged guitar, fail to distract from their distinct lack of quality.
Thompson generally takes a backseat to Beth’s words and drummer Fay Milton’s force and dexterity on Adore Life. There are no riffs to rival those of ‘Shut Up’ or ‘Husbands’, for example, although ‘Surrender’ is pleasingly jagged, with a pulsating conclusion all of Thompson’s making. ‘Sad Person’ is flawed by couplets like “What happens in your brain / Is the same as a rush of cocaine” – Jehnny Beth on love, again – but Thompson’s mix of squall and chiming beauty amounts to some form of redemption.
Her mind seems to have turned away from hardcore-like aggression and onto building more texture and atmosphere into Savages’ work. It works to best effect on closer ‘Mechanics’, which is eerie and spare while still incredibly affecting. Elsewhere, ‘The Answer’ bounces with the bravado of a bullfight, somehow retaining its flirtatious ambiguity as it incessantly pummels. Meanwhile, ‘Evil’ decries stifling heteronormativity (specifically French critics of same-sex marriage) with plaintive empathy. The two make for a strong opening stand, numbering among a handful of songs that half-succeed in making up the album’s lesser entries.
The highs are stratospheric, and while growing maturity displayed on Adore Life hints at a future for a band that looked determined to burn out rather than fade away, there is still some way to go.