Circa Waves – ‘Sad Happy’ review: indie heroes explore hope and despair on compelling double album

This ambitious split LP presents two side, one 'Happy', the other 'Sad', and is a contemplative, conflicted look at modern life

With ‘Sad Happy’, Circa Waves are aiming for growth while staying true to themselves. Contradictory? For sure, and that’s the driving force behind the double record. This is the product of a band acutely aware of their place in the indie rock ecosystem. “We were inspired by how quickly pop and hip-hop move and didn’t want to be left behind,” frontman Kieran Shudall told NME last year. “We felt like alternative music needed a quicker turnaround.”

The Liverpudlian four-piece have been kicking since 2013, scoring adverts and filling summer festival slots with breezy guitar bangers. Their debut, ‘Young Chasers’, remains their staple record – floor-to-ceiling feel good tracks that set the bar for digestible indie rock. Follow-up albums ‘Different Creatures’ and ‘What’s It Like Over There’ edged away from their uncomplicated sound, but it was to the band’s detriment, as the strength of their songwriting only became further diluted. ‘Sad Happy’ gives Circa Waves ample room to experiment with their sound, while rekindling so much of what sky rocketed them to success in the first place.

This double album, unlike some other recent offerings that boast two individual sides on one same album (Coldplay’s ‘Everyday Life’, containing first side ‘Sunrise’ and the second ‘Sunset’, comes to mind), is two entirely different records glued together. ‘Happy’ has been in the world for months already, while ‘Sad’ is brand new. It is what it sounds like: a collection of songs from the same band, yes, but two albums with completely different goals and successes.

‘Happy’ offers seven air-tight guitar-led tracks, sharper and more elaborate than ever, while still harnessing the early infectiousness of ‘Young Chasers’ – a facet that was lost on the more experimental ‘What’s It Like Over There?’. ‘Jacqueline’ features a juddering riff and steady pacing, Shudall singing about the potential of a young mother (“Between you and the setting sun / You’re doing the best you can do”), the mature lyrics showing just how much the band have grown up. ‘Wasted on You’ boasts a synth keyboard hook and a familiar Strokes-inspired bassline. This is Circa Waves, but more introspective than you remember them.

The best track on this side, ‘Call Your Name’, is an adrenaline-filled romp, one that implores us to hold onto the memories and mistakes of youth, rather merely trying to forget them. I cant believe Im not 23 /I cant retrieve this broken dream, Shudall sings. It seems seems certain that thousands of under-23-year-olds will scream the words of this song to each other ad infinitum.

The album’s title track, which acts as a bridge between both albums, introducing the ‘Sad’ side, sounds like an approximated mash-up of everything Circa Waves have tried musically over the years. It’s relatively straightforward indie, but with a vague synth echo that indicates intentions of something more mature than they might have dared on ‘Young Chasers’. Lyrically, it’s as on the nose as they come: “You know me, I’m sad happy … dancing with my eyes wide shut”. It’s less rewarding than the more ambiguous tracks, and oddly weary, as if they’re taking a breather before the second leg of the race.

This brings us to the second side, which accomplishes what ‘What’s It Like Out There?’ couldn’t quite manage. The ‘Sad’ half features more keys, more synth, more distortion in both guitar and voice work. The tracks communicate strident pain and are produced with ambitious electronic influences. Acoustic ballad ‘Sympathy’ best exemplifies this, Shudall’s voice sounding distant, as though he’s singing from another realm altogether.

‘Hope There’s A Heaven’ is, without a doubt, this side’s standout – an electric, complex and daring song about mourning, the frontman admitting agony on the inside while still putting on one hell of a show. Lyrically, it’s heartbreaking: “Maybe I’m falling back in time / Maybe I’m waiting for the moment you find a lifeline.” The carefree guitars take a backseat, making way for ceremonial organ. Here Circa Waves master the duality that the whole album strives for, anguish entangled with bravery and a bit of swagger too. This is the sound of four millennials thinking about mortality without any kind of cloying marketable agenda.

‘Sad Happy’ achieves its goal of communicating a messy, divided and confusing climate inhabited by torn-apart people always looking back to the past while being carried mercilessly into the future. It’s a contemplative, conflicted look at modern life and feels relevant in a breathless, always-on society. ‘Sad/Happy’ is bittersweet more than anything – which feels like the truest emotion for this album, one that successfully communicates the modern maelstrom of everyday pain and joy.

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