Review Summary: I'm not sure...
You know that Lady Gaga quote that's been meme'd to death？The one about how there can be "100 people in a room" and it takes just one person to notice you and see your potential？ She has a point. It certainly helps if that one person is Robert Smith. The Twilight Sad’s fourth album Nobody Wants To Be Here and Nobody Wants To Leave was initially destined to be another Scottish cult classic before Smith picked the Sad to open for The Cure internationally. As a result, audiences found the band and they finally began to have the popularity that long eluded them.
Since then, founding drummer Mark Devine has left the band, while James Graham got married and had a kid. When the band was almost finished with this record, Graham's close friend Scott Hutchison of Frightened Rabbit was reported missing, and Hutchison's body was found days later. Calling a record about “love and loss” is a red flag for hacky writing in a music review, but that’s exactly what the band was dealing with here, no flourishes necessary. "It Won/t Be Like This All The Time" (the title originates from “Sunday Day13”) could mean that things are good but someday they won't be, or that things are bad but someday they won't be.
Even before the album begins, the themes of this album are clear. The cover of NWTBH was a blue and black image of a man and woman facing in opposite directions, with their hands up in surrender. The cover of IWBLTATT is a couple holding onto each other with uncertain expressions as the picture is torn to shreds. James Graham’s Reddit AMA confirmed that the intention the record’s overall aesthetic was to “represent fractured memories,” which is what the band’s lyrics always sounds like. Musically, it sounds like that too, especially on the frantic opener “[10 Good Reasons For Modern Drugs.]” The claustrophobic mix serves the song extremely well, as vocal loops and electronic percussion blow the song as wide open as possible. James Graham gives one of the performances of his career, and his vocals throughout are overall the best he’s ever done. The howl on “I called you, called you all night!” the voice crack on “VTR” “I’ll forget everything they said/if you take my love instead,” and the laconic “gone for sooo long” loops are invorgating and represent the best of the album’s ambition fulfillment.
These are not the gothic fantasies of before, even as songs like the following “[Shooting Dennis Hopper Shooting]” does include a scene where someone kisses then kicks a man down the stars - the opener alone announces that the band is taking the prospect of being an Important Band seriously. “I/m Not Here (Missing Face)” is one “oh ***, they’re really going for it” moment after another, whether through the opening drums or the string synth that enters towards the end. Even on a technical level, they’ve rarely sounded better - Auge Maschine is ostensibly in 4/4, but broken up into measures of 3/8 and 5/8.
Yet there are two issues that prevent the record from surpassing its predecessor. The sequencing is all over the damn place, with the stripped-down ballad "Sunday Day13" in the middle of the record, would-be centerpiece "The Arbor" placed on track 3, and second single “Videograms” inexplicably ending the album. The individual songs are good, but the way they're structured is unsatisfying and means that the songs blend into each other. Even something like “Let/s Get Lost,” a soaring highlight on its own, makes no sense as the penultimate track. And “Keep It All To Myself” is the weakest track, too on-the-nose in its homage to the Cure when the rest of the record just sounds like the Twilight Sad. Darkness obviously suits the band; over-the-top theatrics, less so.
The other issue is the mix. Chris Coady, a veteran of Beach House and Future Islands, was not the best choice for the record despite his stellar work with Slowdive. The drums lack the same punch that Peter Katis’ mix on Nobody... had, and even the moments that should stand out (the piano coming in on "I/m Not Here,” the garbled vocals on “The Arbor,” the "put me in the ground!!" segments of "Girl Chewing Gum.") don't benefit from the claustrophobic, bright sonics. What was great about Nobody... was that it felt restrained, mirroring the album’s reluctance to spell anything out beyond evocative lines like “she’s not coming back” or, most devastatingly, “tell me who ruined you.” You can even go further back to “the kids are on fire... in the bedroom” from their debut album. Most frustratingly, the climax of “Videograms” should explode but any ‘explosion’ is buried in more synths and that underweight, smoothed-out drum sound. Someone like Craig Silvey or even John Congleton could blow the sound up while still retaining the grit and punch of Katis’s work with the band - Coady’s mix is just a bit of misstep when the rest of the record is as confident as ever.
The musical and lyrical maturity are clear. When every element comes into place, you get “VTR” and “I/m Not Here,” which are as good as anything the band has ever done. Just because they stretch themselves too much here doesn’t mean they should pull back, but then again, this album could have used something like “Pills I Swallow” or “Not Sleeping.” Given what they went through, from a hectic tour with the Cure to the loss of a loved one, an occasionally scattered record will do. They’ve come far enough that even a scattered follow-up to their arguable masterpiece will have little of the ambient interludes (“Scissors”) and dissonant mood pieces (Another Bed”) that made their earlier records often impenetrable. Instead, “Videograms” ends with Graham admitting “I’m not sure,” followed by only twenty seconds of feedback before the album comes to a close.