Album Review: White Lies – Ritual (Fiction)

They've got the requisite moves and style - and even catchy songs - but the gloomy trio's second strikes a little hollow

On the surface, there was nothing gravely wrong with [a]White Lies[/a]’ 2009 debut, ‘To Lose My Life’. In fact, we’d wager that a sizable minority of those who sent it to the top of the charts two years ago would happily have it canonised as a gloom-rock masterpiece on a par with [a]The Cure[/a]’s ‘Pornography’ or [a]Interpol[/a]’s ‘Turn On The Bright Lights’.

To my ears, however, it was a little less than that; a solid, serviceable record that cleverly masked its lack of musical imagination with an elaborate facade of emotion. As debut albums go, we can think of worse crimes to commit.

Yet, while every care is taken to do things down to the letter, there’s something about White Lies’ dark art that stubbornly fails to convince. It’s not simply that their first incarnation was as Day-Glo indie-pop anklebiters Fear Of Flying – that youthful discrepancy can be forgiven. No, it’s something more problematic. Their wardrobes are painstakingly monochromatised, their soundscapes suitably glacial and their lyrical themes (love, death, and the meaning of It All) are appropriately large and weighty.

But somehow what all of those dutifully ticked boxes add up to is cargo cult indie: a hollow offering that understands the how without
ever quite grasping the why.

In that sense the band’s second album could hardly have been better named: ‘Ritual’ – a series of solemn gestures undertaken for symbolic value. There are religious references to be found throughout its 10 songs, but they’re of the frustratingly vague and opaque variety, a subject not so much wrestled with as glanced at: “I won’t ask your God for mercy/My spirit’s alone, my soul is dirty”, Harry McVeigh intones on ‘Bad Love’, quoting seemingly verbatim from The Big Book Of Rock Clichés.

Elsewhere, ‘Streetlights’ – an otherwise enjoyably-sleek synth-pop number – finds itself marred by lexical clangers like, “So tired I’m picking skin/just ’cos it’s something to do”, and bizarre talk of, “Bad sex and ethanol/High scores on Solitaire”. We can’t imagine this stuff was rattled off haphazardly – as an album, ‘Ritual’ is nothing if not precise and deliberate – but lyrics are evidently not the band’s strong suit.

Choruses, however, are another matter entirely. Radio-ready hooks – something that seems to come instinctively to [a]White Lies[/a] – abound, from the chest-pounding melodrama of lead single ‘Bigger Than Us’ to ‘The Power & The Glory’’s unashamedly ’80s electro-pop.

The grandiose production style of Alan Moulder is also put to good use, and in addition to the album’s crisp, gleaming sound, the [a]Smashing Pumpkins[/a] knob-twiddler has subtly expanded their sonic palette with tastefully deployed electronic beats (as on opener ‘Is Love’, a song not so much epic as positively Leviathan) and dark industrial machinations (‘Turn The Bells’, successfully evoking the spirit of ‘Violator’-era [a]Depeche Mode[/a]).

But for all the emoting, there’s a hole where the album’s heart should be. ‘Ritual’ takes itself incredibly seriously, going so far as to stretch songs out to an average length of five minutes apiece lest their importance be lost. It’s an album that speaks at you rather than to you, and whose only real method of connection is a well-crafted chorus or 10.

It goes without saying, then, that if you liked ‘To Lose My Life’ there is every chance that you will love this one, which takes the basic idea of its predecessor and magnifies it to arena-pleasing levels. In that sense, we suppose, it is an unqualified success.

But for us, [a]White Lies[/a] are still lacking in the one crucial area any band giving themselves over to the Darkness cannot afford to be short in: conviction. In the end, ‘Ritual’ is not a bad album. But neither is it the album it would like to think it is.

Barry Nicolson

Click here to get your copy of White Lies’
‘Ritual’ from Rough Trade Shops.