It seems trite to focus on a band’s history when moving into a discussion of their second release, but with Savages, that backstory is important. Silence Yourself destroyed the indie scene in 2013, with its gatefold missive imploring listeners to put down their phones, focus themselves, and reclaim the world for an “angry young tune.” Jehnny Beth, Ayse Hassan, Fay Milton, and Gemma Thompson delivered on that missive with a stiff upper lip and an album full of Molotov cocktails before cementing themselves in the scene with an effortless brood owed fully to Joy Division and a sense of the theatrical aped from Siouxsie. In short, with one great album they established themselves as The Next Big Thing. On their second, Adore Life, the band tries to recapture that snarl but mostly fails, and instead finds success in the few tracks that sound wholly unlike those on their debut.
Adore Life is not boring. But where Silence Yourself saw a band unhinged, hungry to devour all posturing, ineffectual rock dudes, Adore Life finds Savages putzing around in the world they’ve created. This is a plight unique to bands that arrive fully formed, especially if that form is aggressive, transgressive, and just a little bit weird. I’m thinking of bands like Interpol and Yeah Yeah Yeahs, whose debuts were full of off-kilter hits, but whose follow-up albums left some wondering if there was more of a message than what we heard on those style-heavy first records. Luckily, Adore Life is more Show Your Bones than Antics, a band reaching for new sounds but hesitant to head in a totally different direction.
“Adore” isn’t the album’s most interesting song, but is the best marriage of the sounds Savages are playing around with on their second LP. As Beth sings, “Is it human to adore life?/ I understand the urgency of life/ In the distance there is truth which cuts like a knife,” Hassan’s bass shambles along, lounging in the swampy atmosphere of their self-styled bleak aestheticism. The chorus that follows is one of the easiest the band has ever written; you can imagine raised lighters (or iPhones) swaying along at shows. It’s a beautiful song. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have much company on Adore Life.
That said, Savages do manage to craft some pretty killer jams: the relentless “Answer” features maybe Thompson’s best guitar work to date, and “T.I.W.Y.G” sounds like a heart attack recorded to tape. The rest of the album — that’s seven songs — finds a band in transition, which isn’t the worst thing in the world. But for a band once so seemingly hellbent on shifting the paradigm with songs like “Husbands,” “She Will,” and “Hit Me,” the muddier, psych-indebted tracks that fill this disc up like goo move so slowly they might as well be blocks of (apolitical) silence.
In addition to the tried-and-true Silence Yourself vibe, the band is flirting with a new aesthetic — Adore Life is a mix of these two, and the aforementioned tracks that straddle the line between old and new territory. The new territory, if we’re calling it that, would be found in “Slowing Down The World,” “Surrender,” and “Mechanics,” wherein Savages mine the foggy caves of late-‘80s and early-‘90s psych that was first charted by the likes of Spacemen 3 and Loop. The later, or older, camp is everything else: “Evil,” “Sad Person,” “I Need Something New,” and “When In Love” are all songs that subsist on the sole rhythm of Hassan’s bass as, over the course of a few minutes, the track crescendoes and Jehnny Beth inevitably resorts to repeating one word or phrase (“Don’t try to change,” “evil,” “I need something new,” “when in love”) over, and over, and over again — just as she did on Silence Yourself’s “Husbands,” “She Will,” “City’s Full,” and “Hit Me,” but with nowhere near the intensity. (After watching them perform “Husbands” live, it’s easy to see how the new songs pale in comparison.)
It’s tempting to draw comparisons to acts (Soundgarden, Swans) that have been name-dropped by Savages in interviews or in blog posts, but that would be selling them short. The most interesting bits of this album, for those of us who aren’t really interested in the few tracks that sound like Silence Yourself extras, are actually the weakest: those that immerse themselves in the wash of psychedelia. “Surrender” is the strongest of these. The lyrics are Jehnny Beth at her metaphorical and melodic best — and goddamn does she craft some weird rhythms in her lines — as she sings, “Surrender/ Walk on water/ Come and be my muse/ I hope to get used/ Horses of pleasure/ Ride them to the ether/ Never suffer,” over a buzzsaw hum that threatens to chew through the whole track. There’s something funny here, in the name of the song, in the way the band doesn’t surrender to whatever, whomever urges them on. Among the detritus of progress that is most of Adore Life, it’s a signpost of great things to come. And that’s better than an album that retreads their debut.
On Adore Life’s album cover, there is no missive, just a raised, black-and-white fist — and that’s about as emblematic a sign of the sonic differences between the two albums as you could want. Savages are a band that, like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs showed in the ’00s, have the potential to transform this thing — this palpable fury, rage, and beauty — into a career that isn’t footnoted by the fact that they’re women, or that their first album was great, or that Jehnny Beth dances like Ian Curtis. Is it weaker than their debut? Yeah. But it’s a necessity. It’s the sound of the band so fully aware of its foundational influences that it’s almost comfortable shedding them, ready to weaponize what can only be described as the sound of Savages. They’re not quite sure what that sound is — will it be the psych drone heard in “Surrender,” or the woozy balladry showcased in “Adore”? — but they’re getting there.