Glass Animals’ sophomore album succeeds in poignant musical storytelling
It’s funny, it’s heartbreaking, it’s eerie, and it’s some damn good music.
Aug. 30, 2016
If you’ve ever read a really good book, or watched a fantastic film, you know the feeling. For a few moments, you leave your own reality and are completely encompassed by someone else’s story, concerns, motivations and fears. You see inside the characters’ heads, you worry about their well-being (or actively root against it) and afterwards can feel yourself still lost in thought, taking a while to snap back to the real world.
Glass Animals, an alternative quartet from Oxford, England, is really, really good at generating this feeling with albums. In 2014, their incredible debut ZABA takes you into a deep, mysterious jungle for 45 minutes. This time, it’s about more than just atmosphere and vibes. The band’s sophomore album, How To Be A Human Being, is all about people and their stories.
Frontman Dave Bayley received his inspiration for the album while on tour. “I found that while we were on tour, strangers would open up and tell me things they probably wouldn’t tell their closest friends. I started recording it all,” Bayley writes in a Facebook post. In another, he continues, “I listened back to all of them at the end of last year, and started to think about the way that people tell stories … There’s a story on the surface, but behind that story is the person telling it and their whole life. All of that made me want to create my own characters and write my own stories with all of that in mind, incorporating some autobiography into each one.”
Bayley started creating these characters, mixtures of stories he heard on tour, his own life and fiction. “I created these big diagrams on what they ate, what they did in their spare time, what their house looked like, what furniture they had, what they thought about, everything,” he wrote. The end product is an extremely emotional record with each character lining up with their own track.
The concept for How To Be A Human Being is executed so incredibly well. When you listen, you feel like you're hearing a personal story from someone you don't know, and you feel the mood of the song in your chest as the lyrics tell the story for each track. It perfectly emulates what it must've been like for them to hear the stories Bayley heard on tour, in music form.
The attention to detail is amazing. Bayley changes his voice from track to track to emulate being different characters. The people on the album cover represent those characters and are all actors cast by the band. The band even made websites for some of the characters. With how focused the album is on people and how they think, it isn’t surprising that Bayley studied neuroscience in college.
Sonic details that reflect each character appear throughout. The synth chord progression in Life Itself, a song about a man obsessed with becoming a science-fiction hero, was meant to sound like a sci-fi theme song. Season 2 Episode 3, the track about a girl who lies in bed watching cartoons and playing video games all day, uses sounds from Super Mario Bros. The chorus of a track about a drug addict, Cane Shuga, was “meant to sound like someone’s cocaine-fuelled stream of consciousness.”
Glass Animals’ jungle flair mostly lives on in exotic drumbeats, like the Pakistani Lollywood-inspired ones in the first single and opener Life Itself. But in general, the band has traded in jungle sounds for synth-heavy music. However, the group still has its immensely eerie vibes in full-throttle. While many of the songs may be upbeat and dance-worthy, the album deals with issues like mental illness, drug addiction, grief, suicide and more. You might be humming along and then stop to ask yourself, “Wait, is this song about homicide?”
Mama’s Gun is the perfect example of both how Glass Animals takes stories and makes them into a musical storytelling experience and how they create songs with a calm, peaceful intro that leads you into a “hold up, this is about murder” song. The track, which features a sample of The Carpenters’ Mr. Guder, is about a woman suffering from mental illness who unknowingly kills her husband because of it. The track is based on a story the band heard from a taxi driver. She used to be a long-haul delivery driver who would take crystal meth and cocaine to stay awake for the drives, until she overdosed and blacked out. She found herself waking up in a strip club a month later in a different state. “That whole month went by with zero recollection of what happened but she had this deep haunting feeling that she had done something terribly wrong, maybe even murder,” Bayley told Earmilk.
Another heartbreaking storytelling track on the album is Agnes, which isn’t haunting in the way that Mama’s Gun is. Agnes tells the possibly very personal story of losing a close friend to drug addiction and suicide. Anyone who’s experienced grief will connect with the lyric “You’re gone, but you’re on my mind.” It’s a poignant ending to an album about people. Bayley described it to Paste Magazine as both his favorite song on the record and the saddest song he’ll ever write.
“Agnes” functions as more than just a simple closer: It and “Life Itself” are meant to be bookends. “The opener is about becoming a real human being, “Agnes” is about someone leaving the world, and everything in-between is what happens in life,” [Bayley told Consequence of Sound.] (http://consequenceofsound.net/2016/08/humans-after-all-a-conversation-with-glass-animals/)
Glass Animals’ synth-heavy soundscapes and poignant lyrics are the perfect combination for a concept album dream come true. ZABA’s success was not easy to follow, but the band was able to evolve in a way that created a new and different album while still being distinctly Glass Animals. If you’re looking to have that feeling of getting lost in someone else’s fascinating stories for a little while, the aptly-named How To Be A Human Being is the album for you.
MOVE gives How To Be A Human Being 5 out of 5 stars.