The London trio’s third features some of their most exuberant songwriting. But in parts they’re still deadeningly generic
I’m bored. Tell you what, shall we put the TV on? Take a second to admire the set, though, because White Lies’ third album is a 55-inch beast of a thing, solid and well crafted by a band wholly confident in their songwriting. There’s a film on, too: a loose concept about a young woman who moves from the provinces of an Eastern European country to a big Western city, and the pressures it puts on her relationship. Arty, intelligent, tasteful. Subtitled, most likely. But somehow, we’re still a bit restless. The home-cinema experience isn’t quite what it should be. Gadget gurus talk of “optimal viewing distance” – the wider your screen, the further back from it you have to be to focus on what’s happening. Too often in the past, White Lies’ off-the-peg widescreen bluster has forced a bit of a distance between the London three-piece and the listener that they’ve struggled to break through completely, dressing themselves in the mannerisms and motions of the epic while neglecting the core of tunes, substance and conviction.
‘Big TV’ is the album in which they start, but don’t quite finish, to address that problem. There are stronger, subtler songs on here than on 2011’s ‘Ritual’ or 2009’s debut ‘To Lose My Life…’, songs with more thought put into them that don’t just race to the climactic air-clutch like a gauche lover. ‘First Time Caller’’s slow, A-ha-ish grandeur doesn’t over-egg its pudding, and has a formidable vocal hook. ‘Space I’ and ‘Space II’ add a bit of experimental cred with a stab at Berlin-era Bowie-style expansive instrumentals. And even though the likes of ‘Mother Tongue’ and ‘Goldmine’ sound familiar to the point of déjà vu with their shimmer and doom, more exuberant tracks such as first single proper ‘There Goes Our Love Again’ – a giddy rush that totally forgets to be portentous – and the genuinely great ‘Be Your Man’ connect far better. It suggests that White Lies, like The Killers, are a band who could truly benefit from giving up on taking it seriously and grabbing their ridiculously anthemic nature with both fists.
As a whole, though, the album’s overall feel is still deadeningly generic. ‘Change’ takes the mood of the ‘Space’ instrumentals and balls it up into an atmospheric (and, yes, Joy Division’s ‘Atmosphere’-like) ballad that has your finger itching for the remote. ‘Tricky To Love’ is all brooding bass and Dave Gahan vocals paired with an incongruously pretty wash and shimmer of synths.And so it goes on. Part of the problem is that White Lies come to the party dressed, as always, in threadbare and borrowed clothes. Derivativeness, even of the most obvious of influences, needn’t be a problem if you animate your borrowings with gusto or give them a good sonic freshen-up. The production here, courtesy of regular Suede cohort Ed Buller, doesn’t help, with painfully nafforama ’80s guitar tones, and some frankly ludicrous drum sounds to boot. It’s all shimmer and vapour, thin tracings of Depeche Mode and Ultravox, U2 and The Cure. What’s underneath, though, is a considerable improvement. Charles Cave’s lyrics benefit from being tied to a theme, and are far less wince-worthy than on the previous two albums as they delve into the delicate dynamics of love. (Special mention, though, has to go to ‘Tricky To Love’: “My love changes with the weather/And my heart, red imitation leather/I’d give the world/But the world is never enough”). Harry McVeigh’s vocal, while it still tends towards a man playing The Ghost Of Christmas Past in a Surrey village hall, in other places throbs with real passion. So they’re getting better. They’re clearly trying extremely hard. Here is a band unafraid to reach for the most epic apple on the most wind-blown branch, and that’s to be lauded. If they were just a bit more concerned with making themselves bigger on the inside, rather than placing all the sonic importance on the shiny surfaces, they might – might – be on to something. For now we’ll probably just see what else is on. Maybe read a book.