The second album of twisty pop from Oxford’s Glass Animals invites deeper investigation of its themes. By Dave Faulkner.
Glass Animals’ ‘How To Be a Human Being’
In this story
Glass Animals have had a charmed life. The four school friends from Oxford first started performing together only four years ago, but almost immediately their blend of intelligent pop and trip hop attracted the attention of record labels. Right after their first London show they were offered a recording deal by Adele’s producer Paul Epworth, and became the first signing to his new Wolf Tone label. In 2014 they released their debut album, Zaba; five of its songs have been streamed just under 100 million times on Spotify alone. That’s a spectacular ascent by anyone’s reckoning.
Next week Glass Animals will release their second album, How To Be a Human Being, and all the signs point to it being another huge success. The album is a huge step forward creatively for the band and its songwriter, Dave Bayley. The music this time is more muscular and grander in scale, and the lyrics more straightforward and expressive. What hasn’t changed, though, is the intoxicating air of mystery that has always marked their work. In fact, the closer you get to Bayley’s new songs the deeper their mystery becomes.
“Life Itself” opens the album with a propulsive tribal beat based around a blend of African and subcontinental rhythms. A jovial synth riffs over some sparse chords before Bayley recounts his tale of an immature loser, a basement dweller:
I can’t get a job so I live with my mom
I take her money but not quite enough
I sit in the car and I listen to static
She said I look fat but I LOOK FANTASTIC
The chorus kicks in with a brilliant syncopated melody, full of energy and urgency. It’s anthemic and wistful at the same time. Although the lyrics paint a sad picture, the music makes you want to jump around the room. It’s an auspicious beginning.
The lyrics of the next single, “Youth”, read like an open letter from a mother to her abandoned son. In it she imagines the life her child will lead as he grows up without her. Bayley gives no clue as to what led to the mother’s separation, but hearing her tender feelings is desperately sad. Once again, the glorious melody wraps the listener in a warm embrace, but the bittersweet lyrics can’t help but bring a tear to the eye.
We are only a couple of songs into the album and already a pattern is starting to appear. Both of these songs feature very distinctive, sad characters. Listening on, it appears all the songs are written from the perspective of different characters, which is a theme that is reflected in the artwork as well. The cover features a photo portrait of a disparate group of people: several men and women, and one child, of various ages, body types and ethnicities. Tellingly, there are no band members; nor are they pictured anywhere inside the booklet that comes with the CD. As I examine the booklet and listen to the songs a lot more, I start to notice interesting connections.
“Season 2 Episode 3” comes as the third song on the record. In other words, album two, song three. The subject of this song is a woman who smokes a lot of weed.
Cereal for lunch
She’s broken but she’s fun
My girl eats mayonnaise
From a jar while she’s getting blazed
There is prominent use of samples taken from the obscure track “I Live Above the Hobby Shop” by independent Chicago artist McFabulous. It’s no coincidence his song was featured in two episodes of High Maintenance, a web series based around a pot dealer and his interactions with various New Yorkers. Bayley has taken the kernel of McFabulous’s track and rewritten the melody and lyrics completely, and he’s included references to cartoons such as the cult series Adventure Time, doubtless reflecting the television diet of his stoned protagonist.
There are a few other songs that deal with substance abuse prominently in their lyrics – “Pork Soda” (alcohol), “Cane Shuga” (cocaine) and “Agnes” (pharmaceuticals) – but there are concurrent themes of delusion and disappointment running through many of them.
Last month I interviewed songwriter, guitarist and lead vocalist Dave Bayley, along with drummer Joe Seaward, in Sydney, and they expanded on themes running through the album. Apparently the characters in the songs were inspired by chance encounters with people they met touring Zaba. Exactly what kind of people, I asked. “All kinds,” replied Seaward. “Taxi drivers, people who worked in venues, people on the street…” “We were at parties a lot,” added Bayley. After a while Bayley had started recording these random conversations. “I had these hours and hours of recordings of people telling these amazing stories,” he said. “Weird stories, scary stories, and the saddest stories I’ve ever heard. My memory’s really bad and I wanted to remember them.”
When Bayley listened back later he began to detect some common threads in all their stories, including the underlying motivations: unhealthy or unquenchable appetites; the search for love; love denied, thwarted or abused. These are the common currency of human interactions and trying to make sense of them has preoccupied artists forever. They inspired Bayley to invent his own characters, whose fictional lives were fleshed out with details gleaned from his trove of recordings as well as his imagination.
Bayley describes “Take a Slice” as “sleaze with guitars”. Sleaze is a subgenre of dance music that came out of New York gay clubs in the ’80s and Glass Animals’ slow hip-hop groove overlaid with a woozy super-distorted lead guitar, played by Bayley, is highly appropriate for an inappropriate song about a stripper.
I’m the treasure baby I’m the prize
Cut me rails of that fresh cherry pie
Shitty old pistola
Shot a bullet thru my wallet
Gonna go to Pensacola
Gonna fuck my way through college
You can almost smell the stale perfume and rancid nightclub atmosphere.
One story that stuck with Bayley was told to him by a female cab driver he had in Atlanta. She described making deliveries by truck while high on crystal meth, causing her to drive across the States in two days. One time she overdid it, though, and had a complete blackout, only to wake up in a strip club. “She sat up in a chair and said to a stripper, ‘Hey, where am I?’ ” Bayley tells me. “And the stripper says, ‘You’re in a strip club, baby.’ ‘No, but, like, which state am I in? What day is it?’ And she’d blacked out for a month.” Bayley shakes his head. The woman went on to say she thinks she might have murdered someone but she can’t be certain. “She’s totally haunted by this blackout,” Bayley continues, “thinking she’s done the most awful thing imaginable, but she’ll never know for sure because her memory’s so foggy … A whole month. Isn’t that mad?”
That directly inspired the song “Mama’s Gun”, which has hints of a possible murder, mentioning serial killer Dr Joseph Michael Swango as it describes the clamour of Mama’s malevolent internal voices. “Mama’s Gun” also features another prominent sample, this time from The Carpenters’ “Mr. Guder”. I’m a Carpenters fan but there’s a perverse joy in a Carpenters sample being attached to such a sordid song. Bayley claims he used “Mr. Guder” because, as a character-based song, it could have almost been written for this album. “It’s cool to use a sample,” Bayley says. “You could write your own music but if you’re adding context as well as music it’s just a whole other dimension.”
We talked about the album’s obscure samples, me picking out the ones I’d identified, and I told Bayley and Seaward that I imagined the people on the album cover were representations of the characters in the songs. To my surprise, they were. Bayley had carefully scripted a backstory for each of them and they found actors who fit the images he had in his mind. “We did a casting, a full-on casting,” he told me, “which was amazing and fun, and dressed them all… went through lots of clothes, lots of props… built all of them a room, a set, and shot portraits of them individually, and that’s a kind of family portrait.”
I ventured that the photographer at the centre of the portrait was a symbolic representation of Bayley and the songwriter was momentarily taken aback. “Dude, you’ve gone deep and you’ve started getting— You’re touching on everything.” Seaward added: “No one else that we’ve spoken to has even got remotely near any of this stuff, and it’s really interesting because we’ve laid these tidbits, like a trail of things, deliberately, so that if you wanted to invest enough… The idea was that we’ve made this thing that superficially looks nice and sounds cool – but we were hoping that’s what would happen.”
Their album’s back cover has all the characters facing backwards except for the photographer in the centre. As a Beatles fan, this reminded me of the back cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. That has a photo of The Beatles with Paul McCartney in the centre with his back to the camera, pretending to conduct the band. McCartney’s ideas fuelled that album so it was too easy to think there was an analogy here.
Bayley wouldn’t outright admit to this assertion, but he almost did. “All I can say to that is—” He turned to Joe. “Ah, should I say it? Maybe I’m giving away too much?” Then he turned back to me and went on. “Eleven people on the cover, 11 songs, there is meant to be that parallel that you already pointed out…Some of the songs are quite personal, in a weird way… As personal as I’ve ever got – probably as I’ll ever get.”
I’ve spoken a lot about the conceptual framework underpinning this album but, as Seaward said, if you just want to listen to a great bunch of songs without looking any deeper, then the music, the melodies and the superb arrangements are more than enough to satisfy. How To Be a Human Being is fantastic pop music made by a group of superbly gifted artists without any compromise. However, if you do choose to go deeper, there’s no telling how far down the rabbit hole you might get. I haven’t even mentioned what I think is the one overriding idea behind all of these songs. I’ll leave that for you to discover yourself.
VISUAL ART Tarrawarra Biennial 2016: Endless Circulation
Tarrawarra Museum of Art, Healesville, Victoria, until November 6
SCULPTURE Bruce Armstrong: An Anthology of Strange Creatures
Ian Potter Centre, Melbourne, August 6-January 29, 2017
VISUAL ART Marion Borgelt: Memory and Symbol
Newcastle Art Gallery, until September 11
Casula Powerhouse, Sydney, until September 11
CULTURE SMASH! Sydney Manga and Anime Show
Rosehill Gardens, Sydney, until August 21
VISUAL ART Standing Up: Portraits of Social Justice
Jewish Museum of Australia, Melbourne, August 21-January 15, 2017
PHOTOGRAPHY Henry Talbot - 1960s Fashion Photographer
NGV Australia, Melbourne, until August 21
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 20, 2016 as "Glass onion".
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