Justin Vernon’s third Bon Iver album is a weird and wonderful thing
Album Review: Glasvegas - EUPHORIC /// HEARTBREAK \\\ (Columbia)
Turning pain into joy is the stuff that dreams are made of for an album as thrillingly ambitious as it is enigmatic
Chilly, pale fingers of synth reach out and sweep like searchlights, and a voice intones in French: “Souffrance, vous n’avez jamais existé”. It’s a slow counting-under into the sometimes obscure, hazy, dazzlingly ornate dreamworld of ‘Euphoric/// Heartbreak’, first cloaked in another language and then beneath layers of glowing reverb as Allan begins to repeat the words, in English, in a hypnotist’s whisper.
‘Pain, Pain, Never Again’ is as dense, as grandiose, as sci-fi Vangelistic an opening as you might have expected from January’s NME cover, on which Allan appeared with Roy’s dying soliloquy from Blade Runner daubed over his bare chest, the final words changed from ‘time to die’ to ‘time to live’. If that clue hinted at the ‘heartbreak’ of the album’s title that headlines were subsequently to spell out, here, if you’re listening closely, Allan addresses it, and his sister and manager, face on: “Denise, Denise, look at the swan that sails…” he hisses. “And a triumphant me and you, again and again and again… the end credits naming us as the majestic escapists of cocaine”.
It’s the only direct (if you can call it direct) reference Allan will make to his past troubles, because this 2011 album is not about that, not really. Glasvegas are much, much better than second album ‘my drug hell’, and from the starting point of one person’s darkest hour, ‘Euphoric/// Heartbreak’ guides you up and out towards dawn, through the restlessly rumpled sheets of many dreamers. It traverses a spacious, synth-dusted soundworld many future-dreampop miles from their girl-group and grit beginnings; the ambition will be a sonic shock to those who wanted the band to stay the ‘working-class heroes’ they wryly joke about being. It shouldn’t, really. If one toe-capped boot probed the gutter on their debut, Glasvegas’ eyes were always on the stars; now they’re just gazing from a little closer.
The sleep cycles spin you deeper as Allan insistently repeats “pain, pain, never again”, until with a kicking jolt like a dream of falling, ‘The World Is Yours’ plunges you into fantasy. The deft switch from that “end credits… cocaine” line to the Scarface-referencing title of a song that races clear of personal pain into universal do-or-die urgency is breathtaking, Allan urging, “Let’s not leave it to another time/Remember in the midst of my dreams when I dreamed that you were mine”. This dream is a lucid one, in which choices, chances and tipping points ripple through into waking life.
To drift from this big-time brashness into the mesmerising murk of ‘You’ might seem confusing. That’s OK; dreams are confusing, and rarely yield their meanings without a little analysis. It’s not an album of festival tunes (though undoubtedly, as you’ll know if you’ve seen ‘Euphoria Take My Hand’ and ‘Shine Like Stars’ live already, it’s an album that //contains// festival tunes), but an indivisible whole packed with puzzles, carefully detailed and ordered. Glasvegas were never solely about fist-pumping emotion, the “woah-oh-ohs” and the “here we fucking go”s; moments like ‘Ice Cream Van’ or ‘Stabbed’ on their debut that at first seemed flatter by comparison unveiled small worlds on a closer look.
‘Euphoric/// Heartbreak’, too, won’t give up all its secrets straight away, whether it’s what’s contained in the miles-deep distorted vocals running beneath ‘Lots Sometimes’ like an underground river, the Japanese subtitles in the video for ‘Euphoria, Take My Hand’ or the “glow in the dark seahorse, never not glowing” of ‘You’. You could sift these dark waters for glints of meaning for weeks, and happily, whatever effort you put in will be repaid in full.
Jump-cutting from the ether to another slumber scene, ‘Shine Like Stars’ shifts up a gear in the race towards daylight, rawly romantic, synthily sleek, Allan crying, “I see the black fade to grey/I feel forwards as the only way”. As well as an album of affirmation, though, Allan said as far back as 2009 that this would be an album of love songs, and choosing life here is always choosing love. ‘Whatever Hurts You Through The Night’ is the grandest of its gestures, sugarspun Sistine Chapels of synth vaulting upwards through soft rock drums. It’s ‘Take My Breath Away’, it’s ‘It Must Have Been Love’, it’s ‘Love Song For A Vampire’, all soundtracking the ballroom scene from Labyrinth. It’s ludicrously overblown, but then, so is love.
If that song knowingly hurls itself open to scorn, thrusting a pair of tracks subtitled ‘Homosexuality Part 1’ and ‘… Part 2’ before a cynical world might seem like bravado. Beyond the baldness of those words, though, there’s nothing more controversial than another exploration of ‘Euphoric///Heartbreak’'s constant choice between “the ubiquitous demon named shame” identified in ‘Pain, Pain, Never Again’ and the difficult path to happiness. Or, as the speaker of the softly flooring, Ultravox’s ‘Vienna’-by-way-of-Cocteau Twins ‘I Feel Wrong’ puts it, “It’s only love”.
Between these two comes the album’s thundering heart. ‘Dream Dream Dreaming’ takes as its model ‘Mr Sandman’ and ‘All I Have To Do Is Dream’, songs in which sleepy imaginings offer a chance for otherwise impossible consummation, but here it’s familial rather than romantic, as Allan adopts his father’s voice to address his uncle and namesake, who hung himself when Allan was young. Both an imagined apology from brother to brother, and a token from son to father to redress the balance of ‘Daddy’s Gone’, it’s an astounding emotional powerhouse that wrings magic from the shittest of situations. With war-in-heaven drums and tearing vocals, it throws off guilt, grasps pain by the thorns and tries to cheat death. As the whole world hangs on a drumbeat, a heartbeat, before that third chorus whacks back in with the force of a last chance, just for a moment, it succeeds.
The emblematic ‘Euphoria, Take My Hand’, as much as it will be grabbed by TV soundtrackers, speaks to a joy much greater than goal of the month; real, dancing delight in being alive, as it gives a gleeful kiss-off to The Fear: “I swear to god, lies and bad thoughts/One, two, three, four… let go”. For an album that so exalts optimism, the ordering of the final two tracks seems odd at first. The stark, spoken-word and piano benediction of ‘Change’ would perhaps fit better rounded off by the climactic, screaming-from-the-mountaintops-as-they-crumble-to-the-sea almost-declaration of almost lost love that is ‘Lots Sometimes’. Surely better to go out on a high?
Well, no, because the right choice is never easy, as closing the album with Allan’s duet with his mother reminds us. Beneath its surface story of a young boy’s fears on release from prison, Allan has been at pains to repeat that deeper layers of meaning come into play. Again, it’s pretty clear what else informed the performance now, and as ‘Pain, Pain…’ subtly opened the album with that concrete context, here again the lightest of touches bookends it. As mournful chords ring out, a snatch of radio can be heard; ‘Daydream Believer’, of course. The happy sounds of a birthday party drift in; Allan’s, in Santa Monica, one he might not have seen. But by keeping that in the fine detail, the choice here could be anything, anyone’s, and Elizabeth Corrigan’s bare, warm words will undo you as she gently admonishes “before you change for me… change for you”. It’s an honest, open ending, an awakening that reminds the listener that, as Yeats had it, in dreams begin responsibility. Glasvegas have already lived up to theirs, and how.
Download: ‘Dream Dream Dreaming’, ‘Lots Sometimes’, ‘Whatever Hurts You Through The Night’
Read James Allan’s track-by-track guide to the album
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