After an extended hiatus of eight years, The Subways are back with their fifth studio album, Uncertain Joys, a record of driving riffs and catchy choruses. This time, there is a different look to the Hertfordshire indie rockers line-up, their latest album being the first without long-time drummer and founding member Josh Morgan after his departure in October 2020. However, his replacement Camille Phillips shines throughout the punchy record.
Frontman Billy Lunn and bassist Charlotte Cooper return from their hiatus with a different approach to recording. The album was written and recorded over two separate periods of their extended break. The first came when Lunn decided to take three years out from recording and touring to read English at Cambridge University, and secondly due to the Covid pandemic.
With students confined to stay on campus for the duration of each term over the whole course of his studies, Lunn had plenty of time to indulge himself in different influences, particularly English literature and music. Delving into artists and albums he had previously not spent much time with gave him a different perspective on songwriting, perhaps explaining the use of synthesisers on the album, having before constrained themselves to a traditional punk rock setup of drums, bass, and guitars.
Lunn has described how he views Uncertain Joys as an album of two halves: the first mostly focused on the interior experience, whereas the second is how we relate to the exterior.
The first half of the album presents a collection of songs related to the extent of love. Their ability to write memorable guitar riffs is immediately heard through the opener ‘You Kill My Cool’. The chorus provides a reminder of how well Lunn and Cooper’s vocals complement each other, blending to provide the first of many catchy choruses. After the rock-heavy introduction, pop tones come to the fore through ‘Love Waiting On You’, which sees the band use synthesisers for the first time. Lunn explained that it, “initially came about because I wanted to write a song for Kylie Minogue, but I loved the song too much to let it go”. The upbeat, pop vibes continue through the title track ‘Uncertain Joys’, with a breathless chorus coming at breakneck speed before rock riffs return through another fast-paced number in ‘Incantation’.
One of the most notable riffs on the album comes on ‘Black Wax’, a song which is a love letter to music itself. Figures such as Kurt Cobain, Fiona Apple and Jimi Hendrix are all referenced in another quick-fire, up-tempo song. The acoustic ‘Lavender Amelie’ finally offers the chance to take a breath from the blistering start to the album.
The second half of the record carries the influences of Lunn’s academic background and political views to provide a frank assessment of the modern world. His frustration boils over with angry cries during ‘Influencer Killed The Rockstar’, a criticism of how the internet has shaped young people, through the way they take in information, and what information they consume. Lines such as, “you’ve trademarked your name” and “All they want is for you to pay, pay, pay, doesn’t matter what they say, say, say” make it clear who his exasperation is aimed at.
Social media influencers are not the only target of his frustrations, with ‘Swanky Al’ offering a satirical look at what it means to be a male singer in a band. ‘Fight’ is the most politically charged song on the album, with the vexation being presented with a nuance of Nu metal. Lunn advises, “if you want a future, we must all come together” and asks to “join me and take a knee”, while he hopes “you’ll hear our voices singing with a multi-culture sound”.
Another driving riff is offered on ‘The Devil and Me’, while lyrically assessing how patriarchal ideas shaped Lunn from an early age. The penultimate song ‘Joli Coeur’ showcases Cooper’s obliging backing vocals stating, alongside Lunn, “I’m never not dreaming of you”, adding a sense of loss to the album. Closer ‘Futures’ is presented in three sections, summarizing the themes of the record, and documenting Lunn’s personal struggles with mental health.
Driving, memorable guitar riffs, and catchy choruses are abound throughout an album with stunning production values that also tackles a variety of themes lyrically. On the downside, the rapid speed at which many of the songs are thrown out with leaves you with little time to breathe and take in the songs, with the most gentle number, ‘Lavender Amelie’, providing a warmly welcomed time-out. Despite this, Uncertain Joys ensures a triumphant return to recording for The Subways.