I wasn’t sure how to start this review, so I watched Happiness instead. And let me tell you, if happiness is what you seek, this is not the film for you. It’s difficult to describe; a barrage of emotional gory, raking together all the detritus at the heart of Western privilege, from beginning (heartbreak, loneliness, jealousy etc. - standard fare, right?) to end (spoiler: 12-year-old son-of-a-pervert masturbates on family villa’s balcony, ejaculates for first time in life, declares same at dinner table). The film deals primarily with the perverse sexual urges of its protagonists - themes we usually encounter in sensationalist tabloid headlines, which most of us feel unequipped not to ignore. It offers no answers to or even explanations for the Real First-World-Problems at hand - only a glimpse behind the flowery curtains of well-laid living rooms; a look at the dirty cogs working within one of the world’s most affluent societies.
Once that ordeal was over and done with, I listened to Bearsuit. Good ol’ Bearsuit. Back when glorified drug-maniacs The Libertines were the musical bread and butter du jour - and I was the kinda kid who ate bread and butter for breakfast, lunch, tea and supper - the chirpy then-six-piece stirred e-numbers into my metaphorical cornflakes. Not just in a “hey I like that one tune where they go ‘Hey Charlie, HEY CHUCK!’” kinda way; it was more of an “Oh rack off you, with your Union Jack and your supermodel muse and your crack and your silly, skinny arms - yeah I’ve got a library card, and what of it?” sort of affair, which genuinely empowered us lame, straw-clutching nobodies, and offered an alternative to post-Strokes Brit-indie cool.
But needless to say, bowels a-rumbling and suffering a slight post-Happiness depression, The Phantom Forest’s unrestrained ebullience momentarily grated; Stuart Brathwaite’s analysis of single ‘When Will I Be Queen’: “No, no, oh no”; as well as the subsequent assertion that it “does my box in”, made a whole lot of sense at that moment. On a purely personal level, I’m not sure they’ll ever be the same again.
But let’s cut to the chase. All you lot wanna know is whether The Phantom Forest lives up to the exceedingly high standard of the band’s earlier six-string-disco noise-pop delights, isn’t it? Well first off, as always, they make a compelling case for party-hats and larks at all costs. The record wards off Fear and Boring in twenty-first century Britain with jazz-hands, star-jumps and incessant yelping, which is all well and good. But Bearsuit thrive on too much, whereas The Phantom Forest tones down the crazy - to a degree - and settles, humbly, for more than your average.
Having said that, this is by no means a Hurts record. Fizzy ADHD electrics that they are, the band’s third outing (excluding excellent early-singles comp Team Ping Pong) - their “concept album” - was bound to be characterised by cries of “Where is my tiger?”, “I am the bird demon queen” and other such cheeringly idiosyncratic non-sequiteurs. The story (but not the album), begins with a train wreck (‘A Train Wreck’ doesn’t turn up until track three), the fallout of which finds its occupants in a daunting new landscape that demands they band together in order to survive. In the aftermath of a four-year gap between albums and a fundamental lineup switch-around, the analogy doesn’t need explaining.
‘When Will I Be Queen’ is a self-explanatory synth-punk tale of the power struggle for group leadership, with a vocal that switches from terrified to terrifying between sentences; ‘A Train Wreck’ escalates from a melodramatic intro, a la ‘Steven Fucking Spielberg’ with words, into a typically jerky, off-the-rails rollercoaster: “We forged through the valley and wrestled the wheel/A slow motion accident twisted in steel”. Nothing quite matches Oh:Io’s zippy melodic punch, though strangely ‘Cut Loose’ - the closest descendent of that album’s nitwittery - channels its energy into a tired Bearsuit-by-numbers formula, never quite catching alight.
While The Phantom Forest flirts with the old cliché of trying to appease fanbase and critics simultaneously, Bearsuit remain in spirit the frolicsome DIY hedonists that John Peel and the rest of us made flags out of our collective cardigans over. It’s what the playground at a school for precocious musically-talented toddlers might sound like, had the kids been given a half-day upon the discovery that magic is real. This is, of course, all very good, but for a band specialising in pick-and-mix of-the-moment indie-pop, which they still have a remarkable knack for, the group are closer than ever to fitting in - a development I don’t think any of us asked for. This being the new lineup’s first outing, however, that’s of absolutely no concern. Hopes pinned to future forages into the unknown and beyond need not be dampened, and Norwich’s exuberant finest remain this island’s principle preachers of primal Happiness.
7Jazz Monroe's Score