In numerous ways there is a lot riding on Glass Animals’ sophomore release How to Be a Human Being. As always there is the spectre of the sophomore jinx that attaches like a monkey on the back of musical performers as they face the daunting task of equaling or besting a well received debut. Additionally looming over the release is Glass Animals’ need to bring the bacon home for their fledging label, producer Paul Epworth’s Wolftone records. Glass Animals debut “Zaba” was the first release for the label in 2012. “How to Be a Human Being” presents a band needing to build on their initial success to advance the cause. Not a group to play it safe, the band takes another risk as they depart from the isolated introspective feel of the debut, hoping to draw in new converts with out losing original fans.
The four members of the Glass Animals hale from Oxford, England. Officially the band was founded in 2012 and is the first band for all the members. After various stabs at choosing a band name and considering offering such as Afro Pony and the thankfully rejected name Alligator Puffin Chicken Go Yeh Woo, the band arrived at the name Glass Animals. Responsibilities within the band break down as such; Dave Bayley on lead vocals, guitar and tambourine, Drew MacFarlane provides guitars, keyboards and back vocals, Edmund Irwin-Singer on guitars, keyboards and backing vocals and Joe Seward on drums. It quickly becomes evident that there is a wide streak of eccentricity that runs through the band’s collective persona. Early in their existence they created their very own fortress of solitude “The Shed” where they repair to relax and record.
Their reasoning for needing their outpost being that if REM could have an abandoned church then why not have a shed. Add to their known quirks the fact that Bayley studied neuroscience in college and while studying the subject spend extended periods with psychiatric patients and you have endless songwriting fodder. The band cites some heavyweights as musical inspirations; Flying Lotus, Burial and a local Oxford band called Radiohead. Speaking of that revered band here is an interesting band trivia tidbit, Glass Animals’ shares along with the “Head” their as debut venue the Jericho Tavern.
Glass Animals after spent time on the UK dive bar circuit were spotted by Adele producer Paul Epworth who signed the band to his new label. With the release of Zaba Glass Animals has had a noticeable rise in their recognition factor. The debut faired well gaining 7 million listeners on Spotify and garnered significant critical acclaim. It has not however been an effortless ride as they have paid their dues with a brutal touring schedule which saw the band perform 130 shows in 2015 alone. These show included such notch worthy venues as Glastonbury, Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, Coachella and the Reading/Leeds festival. They have sold out headline tours in the US at the Wiltern in LA and Terminal 5 in NY, NY. The band has been contrarian in generating their acclaim with an approach that is never force fed, never super hyped. Instead the band has relying on dedicated fans growing the fandom.
How to be a Human Being turns up the heat on a band who already finds themselves amidst a roiling buzz of popularity. The band best characterizes the situation they find themselves in as, “They are the 1,635 New Band of the Day.” The concept for the new album is that each song is a story about a different person. It is an ersatz musical scrapbook of sorts, a culmination of time spent touring, shared memories and encounters with different people the band has met along the way,. Also of note are the found sounds of people Dave Bayley surreptitiously recorded on his phone. He captured people in their unguarded moments; rants from taxi drivers, odd individuals outside their shows and people at after parties. Bayley observes, “People say the strangest shit when they don’t thing they are ever going to see you again.” Add these elements to the fact the band wanted an album that was out in the world and not as cut off and isolated in feel as the debut and you get an engaging panoramic musical mural. All this returns to the initial question, did the band avoid the curse of the sophomore jinx.
“How to Be A Human Being begins” with Life Itself, a strong and surprisingly radio friendly song. It bursts forth with an engaging tribal drum percussion treatment which lays down a funky vibe and allows Bayley’s vocal to narrate a tale of millennial angst. Here we find an individual who can’t seem to escape his grandmother’s basement, with a lack of socialization skills he can’t land a job and experiences a failure to launch. The protagonist realizes he has to break out of the vicious cycle he is captured within. The song is a prescient observation of the predicament within which many post grads find themselves captured. They have been petted and cosseted by parents and then abruptly realize the world is a tough rat race offering no medals for just showing up. The band takes this insight and marries it to a stellar blending of percussion and keys delivering a real earworm of a song. Youth follows along the same thematic path as “Life Itself” but has a more sensual feel with a slower tempo and schizo keyboards. The album jogs along through the computer game sound effects of “Season 2 Episode 3” and the arresting Pork Soda with its nonsense chorus “Pineapples are in my head” providing a real head scratcher that keeps things interesting.
However a sense of disappointment occurs as the next four tracks fall flat and seem to squander the impact of the first four songs. Mama’s Gun and Cane Shuga might be trying to combine too many elements into the songs and they fizzle because of the over reach. Premade Sandwich is at best a stab at a voice modified rant about bias that reminds me of Radiohead’s “Fitter Happier” off of “OK Computer”, but doesn’t quite work. While The Other Side of Paradise is an attempt at a funk/hip-hop/Prince confabulation that takes as its topic the unattractive side of fame and rock bands, but again is missing that extra something that would bring the track across the finish line.
I just about gave up the release as dead when the album regained its momentum with the tracks Take a Slice, Poplar St. and Agnes. Take a Slice is a winning amalgam of Funk and R&B, what makes the track outstanding are the guitars that make an engaging appearance. The theme of the song deals with the topics of temptation and immediate gratification creating a carnal gritty selection. Poplar St. is a trippy hallucinogenic track. It is filled with melancholy memories of a young boy watching an unseemly world walk by his front stoop. Finally Agnes is a song where the accompaniment makes the song a standout. There is significant digital goodness in the song infused with spacey instrumentation. It takes as its topic the idea of pulling for a good friend to conquer their demons and fulfill the promise they once held.
How to Be A Human Being is a bit of a let down and it’s inconsistency probably will not advance the band’s efforts. It is not a complete wash out with seven of the eleven tracks showing promise. There are some significantly noteworthy moments, with Life Itself proving to be a brilliant song. I only wish there had been more of that kind of alchemy and not so much of the genre moshing hip hop filler found in the center of the release. I really wanted to like this album but unfortunately in the end Glass Animals became a victim of the sophomore jinx, I can only say better luck next time.