For the nearly half-century since the genre’s inception now, one of the few steadfast foundations upon which punk rock has stood has been nihilism. Consistently, the spirit of punk has been one of “Fuck it all – strip the music down to the barest essentials and get emotionally dark and bleak – at least that way we’ll all beat the world at its own game and laugh when it comes runner-up to us when it reaches its own inevitable collapse.” That angle has always proven to be a pretty attractive one from which to view the world, but it has been done so often now that it could be seen as a “tradition” – something that punks have always (dogmatically) abhorred. Nearly fifty years along now, it seems like someone should have taken note of the irony present in that basic foundation and (in keeping with the other keystone tenets of punk) attempted to flip everything that punk has held dear on its head and rethink it from the ground up.
Under that rationale, it stands to reason that the next great punk album would sound enormous, expansive and brightly hopeful instead of lean and nihilistic. The idea that punk could truly embrace its anti-establishment heritage in such a manner and still sound like a punk album somehow seems laughably unlikely on the face of it – but that’s exactly what Gang Of Youths has done on their sophomore album, Go Farther In Lightness. Here, the Australia-born band has overturned every tenet integral to the substance of punk rock and presented what should be regarded as an album which can only be called the next step in the evolution of the genre.
As bold a statement as readers may perceive the above to be, it doesn’t hold a candle to the way in which Go Farther In Lightness unfolds. Opening with “Fear and Trembling” adds an element of literary criticism to the proceedings on the surface [that phrase is also the title of Kierkegaard’s analysis of perception and anxiety], but also takes on the task of reimagining the direction of punk rock right away. Here, amid lines which bid a fond farewell to many of the things that the subject of the song knows and loves (“There’s a moose head hanging/ From a wall at a bar at a/ Nondescript part of the street/ There’s a long-haired boy/ Making eyes at a john/ By the lamplight hung from the beams”) at the end of what he’s calling his youth (“I was a boy once, now/ I’m kind-of-adult”), listeners will finds themselves drawn in by the words but held by the music. The piano tone recalls the air of romantic remembrance which has won fans for the likes of Billy Joel and Tom Waits but, when the drums spontaneously give the song legs and the more rock-centric instrumentation (guitars and a truly propulsive bass) instantly re-colors the track, listeners won’t be drawn or pulled into the mix; it will just sound so good that they’ll leap in with it without thinking twice – they’ll just be moved.
As “Fear and Trembling” progresses, more fantastic lyrical one-liners get laid out by singer David Le’aupepe (“I was waiting on the future/ But the future only came/ In the form of greying matter/ In my only father’s brain”) at a rate rapid enough to ensure that the heads of listeners are left spinning. They’ll find they’re floored by the ease with which Le’aupepe turns these phrases (and more – so many more), and will be perfectly hypnotized by the effect. Likewise, they’ll find that the music which supports the song (which plays sort of like an enormous meeting of pop, indie and punk as listeners will be able to pick out stylistic flecks of bands like The Gaslight Anthem, The Replacements, Coldplay and Billy Joel throughout) instantly engages them, but the warm string section slotted seamlessly into the mix adds a sense of classicism and grandeur which proves itself to be a welcome immediately, even if it is totally unexpected. As the song fades, listeners will find themselves totally stunned by the introduction that “Fear and Trembling” represents. They may have been cynical at first; then they’ll be won by the fact that the mixture of sounds is unexpected but arrives fully formed, confident and (most importantly) brilliantly composed.
After “Fear and Trembling” closes out, Gang of Youths doesn’t let the mood or tempo of Go Farther In Lightness‘ A-side lapse in the slightest. Rather, the band presses earnestly into “What Can I Do If The Fire Goes Out” and actually speeds things up, without changing the heart of the music. Drummer Donnie Borzestowski taps out a beat which has a tendency to kick like a jackrabbit rather than stomping heavily, and the combination of Le’aupepe’s squealing/squalid guitar figure and his breathless, beauteous vocal amount to a perfect storm capable of penetrating a listener’s brain and winning them over, completely. The same is true of both “Atlas Drowned” and “Keep Me in the Open,” which sort of blur together, but the heights to which Le’Aupepe’s vocals ascend as well as the way that the synths twinkle at the end of “Atlas Drowned” effortlessly inspire hearts to swell and minds to be overcome by the band’s delivery. While the A-side may seem short at just four songs in length (this becomes a running theme), listeners will be left ready to flip to the B- in hopes of keeping the momentum moving fluidly as soon as the stylus lifts.
Continuing with the “no hard stops” tradition set by “Atlas Drowned” and “Keep Me in the Open,” the B-side of Go Farther In Lightness opens with three songs which are basically inseparable in their design: “L’Imaginaire,” “Do Not Let Your Spirit Wane” and the album’s title track. Now, the cool thing about these three songs is that while none of them is the sort which really should fit together with the others (“L’Imaginaire” is a moody instrumental. “Do Not Let Your Spirit Wane” is an operatic feeling ballad in the tradition of Coldplay and “Go Farther In Lightness” is a sleepy, redemptive dénouement which lifts hearts after “…Spirit Wane” casts the vibe of the album down and lays it low), they present a fantastic and fantastically dramatic movement.
The progression is powerful and dramatic: as listeners follow these tracks along, they’ll be once again engaged by the band’s power and passion and be held dearly as each movement makes its way along and passes through them. The effects are energizing here and, while the sawing strings which push “Achilles Come Down” along add a harrowing energy to the proceedings and the ‘winding down’ sensation of “Persevere” seems intent on reimagining the depression that Leonard Cohen brought so vividly to his music, neither of those cuts inadvertently tanks the power with with the side starts. True, the way the side ends is not as strong as it begins – but “Persevere” will have listeners inspired to progress immediately to the C-side of Go Farther In Lightness, regardless.
… And when listeners arrive on the C-side of this set – after the needle sinks in and “Le Symbolique” warms the side with another string-driven, orchestral start – “Let Me Down Easy” deviates from the angles that listeners have come to expect and knocks through a flawlessly radio-ready, Killers-esque pop anthem. While some listeners may balk at the fluffy, almost throwaway vision of lines like “’Cause you remember when, after Paris/ We all decided the best way to fight it was/ Drink wine, dance here and pray/ And make love that lasts with a vengeance,” it’s impossible to deny the urgency with which Le’aupepe offers them, and listeners will find themselves ready to start following this lead as quickly and easily as they did LP1 as “Let Me Down Easy” fades out and “The Heart Is A Muscle” starts up.
Funny thing about “The Heart Is A Muscle” – while the song is unquestionably one extolling the value, beauty and power of love, the song actually resembles its title organ in that it is dense, thick, muscular and powerful. From the moment it starts, Borzestowski simply seeks to lay down a beat as simple and constant as a metronome and lets his bandmates busily color everything else about the song, and they do. Le’aupepe wears his heart on his sleeve as he boldly declares, “I will not spend the years depleted of my willingness to try” while Jung Kim’s fingers dance carefully along on his piano and the team of lead guitarist Joji Malani and bassist Max Dunn charge to a truly classic rock power and posture.
While Gang Of Youths will have already won listeners over several times by this point in the running of Go Farther In Lightness, “The Heart Is A Muscle” steps up and performs harder and more impressively by far. It’s funny because the band doesn’t push one thematic boundary with this song (‘power of love’ songs can be found in a directory of books by a directory of artists), but Gang Of Youths manages the impossible by having the subject matter sound fresh and new here. It’s almost as though the band truly did learn to fall in love and what that means as they wrote this song, and the results are more incredible than anyone who has yet to hear the track can possibly imagine.
After “The Heart Is A Muscle” closes the C-side of the album, it goes without saying that listeners will still be on board for however long it takes to see the completion of Go Farther In Lightness through, but the album’s D-side does indeed prove to feature a few more fireworks – some of which being arguably among the album’s brightest. Once again, the final side opens with strings but, this time, the first song which follows that intro (“The Deepest Sighs, The Frankest Shadows”) feels simultaneously satisfied and determined to scale to heights still higher than Gang Of Youths reached anywhere else in this runtime.
From note one, there’s no doubt where the band is headed as the song’s bass figure instantly gets it moving and Le’aupepe opens with a set of lyrics designed to steal hearts (“There’s a sky full of lights and none of them stars/ But each white, silvery flicker’s a faithful reminder to us/ Of a weight that’s in youth that makes a dick of us all/ If it happened today, then it’s probably happened before”), but listeners who already know they’re headed front-to-back with Go Farther In Lightness will also already be able to feel the anticipation this start is intended to inspire. They’ll feel the energy build as the drums kick in and hear the singer mention a rising pulse, and feel their eyes begin to widen when they hear Le’aupepe drop salacious lines like “That passed in a violent and ritual screwing inside” because, on some level, they know what’s coming: somewhere, there will be an orgiastic release.
… And then it comes (at about the 2:23 mark). Listeners will sigh when they reach that moment and, even though the singer tries to downplay it (how else does one explain anti-climactic lines like “Not everything means something, honey/ So say the unsayable, say the most human of things/ And if everything is temporary”), there’s a fantastic climax to be found. It comes on hard and gently – and holds listeners dearly through it all.
While “The Deepest Sighs, The Frankest Shadows” is most definitely a pinnacle of power on Go Farther In Lightness, the truest, highest point in the presentation is its closer, “Say Yes To Life.” There – perhaps to make the point that they have more in them than they could possibly put on this mammoth 2LP set, Gang Of Youths combine all of the different aspects which helped to astound listeners on different individual songs on Go Farther In Lightness – the stampeding drums, the dramatic and spectacular vocals, the propulsive bass, the impassioned spirit – and assemble them all into a song which boldly stands up to or against the fatalist foundations of punk and manages to win hearts while it does it.
As was also the case elsewhere on the album but with an ecstatic edge which could only really be coming from the fact that both the band and listeners know that the end of this experience is nigh, a string swell opens “Say Yes To Life” with singer David Le’aupepe following closely behind. Perhaps because he’s already run a gamut of emotions through this running, the singer sounds a little sleepy as he opens the song with the words, “There’s a sadness in the heart now of the imitation zone/ Don’t forget about your brothers if you go at it alone.” Those words should sound cold and lonely, but they don’t. In fact, there’s something intrinsically heartening about both the phrases and their delivery here and it only gets moreso as the lyrically packed song progresses. Lines like “And I could almost take a whole life/ To disclose how I feel about the now/ Can’t give you an insightful conclusion/ So if time is predicated on abstractions in a void/ Do not subjugate yourself capitulating to the noise” don’t even come close to saying it all, but they’re a good example to start.
As built up/empowered as listeners may have felt by other moments elsewhere in Go Farther In Lightness‘ running, “Say Yes To Life” reaches a completely different peak and, as the song progresses, proves to be a triumph of dynamic songwriting for this young band. Listeners will have no difficulty whatsoever falling into step with the brisk tempo and the lyrics are a spectacle unto themselves but it is the bridge which really makes it an anthem. There, the music parts and Le’aupepe snarls out the lines, “Say yes to sun! Say yes to pain!/ Say yes to sticking with a city through a thousand days of rain!/ Say yes to grace! Say no to spite!/ Say yes to this! Say yes to you!/ Say yes to me! Say yes to love!/ Say yes to life!/ Say, say yes to life!” in a tone which is equal parts “all heart” and genuine heartache, and totally upends the punk’s precious paradigms one more time.
It is with that moment that “Say Yes To Life” begins to close, and Go Farther In Lightness with it, and it really is the perfect note on which to end; any further, and something which is already in place might be overshadowed or not receive the attention it’s due. Such statements may seem trite because they’re often used so frivolously, but “Say Yes To Life” is a perfect end because it is a high point and leaves listeners agonizing for more.
If it wasn’t perfectly self-evident in reading this review, I can make the claim that Go Farther In Lightness made a Gang Of Youths fan of me. Even after repeated listens, the shine did not fade from a single song; each proves to have fantastic longevity and, eventually, listeners will find themselves happily welcoming each when they hear it as they would an old friend. In its own way, that is phenomenal. Particularly in punk and rock musics, what is “new” is often met with suspicion and mistrust – but applying such a mindset to Go Farther In Lightness is impossible. Those who find it will find themselves treasuring it immediately and with no half-life in sight. Such is another way in which Go Farther In Lightness is special, and another reason that everyone needs to hear this record.