An album which doesn't really have a sense of direction. And, ten years later, it is without the catchy, well-structured songs of their first record
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It’s been ten years since White Lies released their first record, To Lose My Life. Harry McVeigh began singing “I love the feeling when we lift off”, the bass notes thudded, and the band launched. That was in 2009 and the album debuted at number one in the charts. (Something almost unimaginable for most indie bands now. It was a different time). The first tune, ‘Death’, was a fitting beginning for a band that have built a reputation for gloomy, but catchy, anthems.
The taut, post-punk of their first record came after the indie revolution of the 2000s, and it was as much a product of guitar bands like Kaiser Chiefs and Franz Ferdinand, as Joy Division. During the ten years since, White Lies have hovered on and off the radar, but have always drawn comparisons to Editors and played reliably moody, eighties-tinged, post-punk.
They’ve added more electronic sounds in that time. They could comfortably be part of an 80s soundtrack for a Black Mirror episode. But, despite threatening to, they have not grown into the stadium band that their anthemic songs initially promised – when they recorded a live show at Hoxton Bar and Kitchen in 2013 and the crowd chanted the lyrics to Farewell to the Fairground back at them. (“There’s no place like home / There’s no place like home”).
Five is a time to reflect. After leaving their label, this is their second self-produced effort. They have had help from old friends, including Alan Moulder, who mixed. And Ed Buller – who gained fame producing Suede’s debut and previously produced To Lose My Life and Big TV – helped shape the songs.
Ten years on, the synths have become more prominent and the songs more complicated. On opener ‘Time To Give’, the synth grows and grows, and the key changes again and again, as the band test how far they can take it. (Compare that to the skeletally-pared-back tune, Death, on their debut.) They certainly have time to give here, and it’s overly long at seven minutes, but there’s nothing original enough in those synths to capture a listener.
Five is more experimental than previous records. There are elements of heavier rock, particularly nodding towards metal guitar on Finish Line and Fire and Wings. Then there’s spacious Pink Floyd-prog on Kick Me. There’s also, more strangely, a piano solo to end that song. It’s as if Classic FM accidentally played during the recording, and they thought they’d leave it in.
There’s a lot going on with Five, but instead of a mark of maturity it feels like White Lies aren’t sure which direction they are going in. The flight doesn’t have a destination. The lyrics are also often overwritten to a point where they are hard to follow, as on Fire and Wings: (Huddled on our shadowed hill /The town is a fallen steed.) At times they just sound a bit awkward, and rely on rhyming couples, which sound forced. (On Never Alone: “When they call my name, I’m the first to smile / I put a few feet wrong on the moral pile”). The tendency for melodrama doesn’t fit the band as well as it did, now they are in their early thirties.
Maybe the biggest disappointment on Five is that there’s nothing here as catchy as their best work: Nothing that hooks you like There Goes Our Love Again or Hold Back Our Love. That’s not to say there aren’t good things: Denial is undeniably an earworm of a song and paints the best picture of the end of a relationship (“And there’s a kind of heat / you leave behind when you go”). Tokyo also hints at something bigger and catchier.
They are not at their best here, though. If anything, the tenth anniversary of their debut is a reminder of how cohesive a record To Lose My Life was. This record doesn’t take them to particularly new places. They haven’t quite lifted off yet -but if they want some direction, it’s worth looking back at where they started.