Who doesn’t want to be in a rock band? What with their artfully bashed-up guitars, wardrobe full of skinny ties, the adulation of the masses and in another time, the groupies, you would think everyone would want in. White Lies may be such a group; however they are one with curiously modest aspirations. While the hip hop community may harp on about the size of the rims on their Escalades (yeah, I haven’t really listened to any hip hop since circa 2005) or their gold chains (or apparently 1987, is Grandmaster Flash still around?) White Lies’ concept of luxury is simple pleasures like a bed and a big TV, which given the hospitalities afforded on tour these days is unlikely to even be a flatscreen. Not exactly lush.
That’s of course a less than fair interpretation of the opening title track on this third outing from the London trio, yet it’s somewhat revealing of what sets White Lies apart from the crowd. Emerging onto the indie scene in 2008 with the singles Unfinished Business and Death, White Lies were lumped in with the post-punk revival, only to find the genre dying a slow death. Managing to avoid nearly drowning in a sea of comparisons to Editors, Interpol and, Lord help us, Joy Division, their first two albums 2009’s cheery To Lose My Life… and 2011’s follow-up Ritual were surprise successes. The secret to that success is their ability to combine euphoric tunes with dramatic storytelling which if it was easy, we’d all be doing.
While Paul Banks and Tom Smith seem happy to fill their songs with stream-of-consciousness rambling and cod-philosophy, White Lies’ music have always been driven by affecting yet relatable lyrics exploring romantic entanglements with obliquely drawn characters and a distinct everyday flavour allowing the soaring guitars and keyboards to provide the requisite emotional Sturm und Drang. Whether or not they’re taking an ironic Zooropa-like swipe at modern decadence with the title of the record doesn’t matter, it’s the personal connection the songs make that resonates. Sure they may have overcooked it on their debut, sometimes coming across as overwrought, but they hit their stride on Ritual, now their confidence has grown and they’re breaking into a gallop on Big TV.
This is far and away White Lies’ best album yet. Partially responsible for that is the greater variety of influences coming through but for the mostly it’s the band’s willingness to push beyond what they know they can do. Sometimes an album’s cover art can tell you a lot about its contents; here White Lies are adding a splash of colour to their previously monochromatic palette. Last time around working with veteran Alan Moulder in the producer’s chair on the polished Ritual, the band simply amplified their debut’s sound. Here the sound of the band is richer because instead of just using synthesizers and effects to make choruses huger than they already are, keyboards are integral to the construction of songs.
Muse-esque burbling keyboards provide a foundation to Getting Even and first single There Goes Our Love Again with icy New Wave synths providing lead melody lines. The Space interludes may appear indulgent yet they show that keyboards are being used in composition and not just as an additional texture in production. Nowhere is that more abundantly clear than on two polar opposite tracks: Change, a gorgeous sombre piano-led ballad that makes the most of Harry McVeigh’s upper register and First Time Caller which with its stop-start rhythm, orchestral stabs and sing-along final chorus is simply the finest thing the group have ever done.
In their time away writing this album, White Lies have clearly found inspiration in the music of the ‘80s. There’s a whiff of the great and good from the glory days of MTV throughout, a hint of Ultravox here, a dash of Depeche Mode there. Mother Tongue and Be Your Man could be forgotten cuts from The Cars’ Candy-O record and just listen to that crunchy guitar on Big TV, bringing back memories (not all good) of the Yes years with Trevor Horn. By re-uniting with the producer of To Lose My Life… the band have the ideal collaborator in Ed Buller who has recently added the same glossy sheen to records by One Night Only, The Courteeners as well as the majority of Suede’s catalogue including recent comeback album Bloodsports.
Big TV’s production may be too slick for some and sometimes the group’s verses are suffocated by their over-reliance on minor key melodies however these are minor quibbles. This is a tremendous record of superb songwriting finding White Lies aspiring to greater heights than ever before in their career. Initially written off by some as proof of the rule of diminishing returns, (i.e. what happens when you try to photocopy a tired blueprint of Joy Division and Gang of Four records over Coldplay lyrics too many times) White Lies have demonstrated staying power beyond anyone’s expectations. Who knows maybe they will be able to get a flatscreen after all?