Confrontational explorations of fear, love and coitus on improved second album
A couple of years back, Savages pasted up notes around concert venues at which they were playing, requesting that the audience not take photos of their live performance. “Our goal is to discover better ways of living and experiencing music”, it read, and of course they were ridiculed for their efforts: who was this band of women, with their all-black wardrobe, and their androgynous hairstyles, to tell music lovers how to enjoy themselves? To take one’s self too seriously is to set one’s self up for a fall.
But what if you don’t stumble? The brace of music assembled on Savages’ second album, Adore Life – 10 taut, white-knuckle songs about love, desire, fear, fucking and self-actualisation – takes itself very seriously indeed. In doing so, though, it succeeds in shucking off superficial comparison points, reaching for something deeper and more profound.
This was by no means foretold. Savages’ debut album, 2013’s Silence Yourself, was full of vigor, but a little too in thrall to its influences – a bit Siouxsie, a bit Stranglers, a bit Magazine – and after a decade-odd of bands reviving the sounds and strategies of post-punk, that didn’t quite feel enough. Still, in the flesh, it worked. In 2013, Savages played a show at Ministry Of Sound, a nightclub in the concrete environs of London’s Elephant & Castle. Inside, black-clad post-punk dads rubbed shoulders with art students sporting fierce bobs, and Savages set up in right in the middle of the crowd, encircled. Stark lighting illuminated vocalist Jehnny Beth’s mannered dance moves – think Jacques Brel by way of Ian Curtis – and the effect was electrifying. It cut right to the paradox at the heart of Savages’ music: that by embracing honesty and vulnerability, blowing away the smoke and smashing the mirrors, it was possible to create something of startling power.
In this spirit, Adore Life is utterly direct, delivered with a torrid urgency suggestive of the fact that any deviation or metaphor might endanger the entire enterprise. The subject is love – romantic, and sexual. But whereas some post-punk bands treated love archly, as something to subvert or critique – think Gang Of Four’s “Anthrax” – Beth explores it at close quarters. Her lyrics speak frankly of a taste for submission. “I want your fingers down my throat,” she trembles over wailing guitars on “When In Love”, while “Surrender” is a command to engage in acts of mutual pleasure (“Come and be my muse/I hope to get used…”). Midway through “I Need Something New”, a remarkable fusion of avant-garde opera and cold industrial rock churn, we find her mid-coitus with an unnamed lover in a cold room, her booming vibrato hiccuping into a jolt of falsetto as she spits out the word “fucking”. Notably, though, the eroticism on display here never feels designed to titillate, or cater to male fantasy; a sense of confrontation is embedded in the music, a broiling tension that sounds as much like war as it does love.
This is all thanks to the band – guitarist Gemma Thompson, drummer Fay Milton and bassist Ayşe Hassan – who feel both tightly drilled and nicely limber, the result of months of rehearsal and workshopping at a three-week residency at New York venue Baby’s All Right, in which songs received flatly were mercilessly culled. Where Silence Yourself was recorded mostly live, dore Life’s parts were recorded separately, with the mix completed by the Danish electronic musician Anders Trentemøller. The result is a crisp, metronomic propulsion, captured best on the churning, eastern-tinged opener “The Answer”, or “Sad Person” – a prickly rush that finds Beth noting that love has a similar chemical effect on the brain as a hit of cocaine.
At times, Savages don’t cleanly hit the mark: the jumpy bass and skittering hi-hats of “Evil” recalls featherweight post-punk revivalists like White Lies, and can’t quite carry Beth’s lyric, a nuanced lament about the dogmatic family values of French Catholicism. They make far more from a couple of accomplished torch songs. “Is it human to adore life?” asks “Adore”, a track about shucking off sexual guilt inspired by the poet Minnie Bruce Pratt, who lost custody of her sons after coming out as a lesbian in 1975. Finally, there is “Mechanics”, a gloomy lieder redolent of the cold symphonies of Scott Walker’s Tilt. A pansexual exploration of the whirring cogs and levers that define attraction, it feels naïve but hopeful, born in a dark place but groping towards the light. “My love will stand/The test of time,” sings Beth. Increasingly, it looks like Savages will too.
The March 2016 issue of Uncut is now on sale in the UK – featuring our 19 page David Bowie tribute plus Loretta Lynn, Tim Hardin, Animal Collective, The Kinks, Mavis Staples, The Pop Group, Field Music, Clint Mansell, Steve Mason, Eric Clapton, Bert Jansch, Grant Lee Phillips and more plus our free 15-track CD
Uncut: the spiritual home of great rock music.