As The Electric Soft Parade has aged, the wait between albums has increased with almost seven years separating Stages and their previous fourth LP, IDIOTS. As extensive as this wait has been; The Electric Soft Parade has not been idle. In 2014 both Alex and Thomas collaborated with Mark Chadwick (Levellers) to play drums and piano on his second solo LP, Moment. They took a “Remain” stance on Brexit including a mini-European tour entitled “The Brexit Outreach” during April and May in 2019. The White bothers have also endured much tragedy, for the focus of Stages was dealing with the loss of their mother. Stages aimed to take on “the multiple perspectives of the experience of death and grief”.
Whilst mourning and a sense of loss are the overriding themes of Stages; album opener “Saturday” begins in a relaxed, chilled and rested manner. “Saturday” is suave. There is a jazz piano crooner feel to it as if this song was written for Nat King Cole. “Saturday” can, therefore, be described as “Let There Be Love” part two. There is also a slight, indirect resemblance to The Dears “Pinned Together, Falling apart”; however, “Saturday” is by far more sanguine, less intense, less haunting and more relaxing.
“Never Mind” follows “Saturday, a song about the White brother’s mother’s passing. The Electric Soft Parade released a video of this song with footage from a documentary about mental health and institutional care in 1970s America. To the band, this video echoed their own first-hand experience of illness and physical decline. Alex explained that “The combination of the ‘another world’ quality of the film footage, with the naturalistic horror of institutional care” put him in a position where he was able to view his own mother’s private suffering.
“Never Mind” is not lyrically verbose or dramatic, yet the lyrics succinctly (and probably accurately) project the White brothers' mother’s suffering and their own reactions to her suffering and their reflections upon her suffering. Musically, “Never Mind” also has a jazz feel to it with impressive saxophone riffs amidst raw and muffled deep guitars. Despite “Never Mind” being seven and a half minutes long and its difficult subject matter; the listener is left with feeling positive and wanting more.
The jazz theme continues with “The Bargain”. “It’s too hard to talk about” and “What was the crime anyway. We got it so wrong” ensure this song continues and builds upon the emotional hiatus “Never Mind” induced and penetrated into the listener. The brass section remains and the pleasant key changes are more sudden and dramatic. At five and a half minutes in, “The Bargain” takes a prog-rock direction with more dramatic guitars and synthesiser sounds adding an additional layer of haunting and darkness.
“Left Behind” opens with simple, instant piano riffs and acoustic guitar strumming with soothing, comforting, safe and simple electric guitar solos making “Left Behind” the most instant song on Stages. One will notice resemblances to the early Doves material from Lost Souls. Despite the ongoing dark subject matter about “going out of this world on your own”; “Left Behind”, whilst haunting, soothes and enriches the soul without triggering feelings of solitude. The Burt Bacharach “Walk on by” trumpets towards the last minute and a half add another layer of warmth and comfort to “Left Behind”.
“On Your Own”, the longest song off this LP, lasting over twelve minutes is almost as instant as its processor “Left Behind”, except the intro resembles a more piano centred rendition of The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” amidst Doves’ “Words”. The injection of The Electric Soft Parade signature electric guitars with ruffled, raw guitar solos allows “On Your Own” to become its own independent entity. Trumpets and horns then follow, intensifying the tenacity of this track. There is not one second of filler here, as with “Never Mind”; one is left wanting more. The unexpected playout with the honky-tonk piano is beautiful and should remain unaltered.
The penultimate track, “Roles Reversed” just shy of ten minutes has the rawest and rockiest sound to it which is felt at the outset. The heavy rock sound has deep lyrics surrounding death and contemplation of “a heavy heart” and what cannot be described: “I loved you more than I could say”. Musically there are some indirect resemblances to Snow Patrol’s “Run”. “Roles Reversed” surprises with key changes as well as sections with organ, trumpets and multiple drums.
Stages plays out with “Fragments”. This melodic and festive sounding ballad like the former tracks has a sad, mourning and contemplative subject matter. Whilst the lyrics are not overlooked; the juxtaposition of the lyrics and upbeat music, particularly the Burt Bacharach horn sections do not sit ungainly together. Stages ends with the sounds of children playing merrily and loudly together, allowing this LP (despite its foundation and theme of suffering, mourning, loss and mental health) to exit positively and optimistically.