San Francisco – There’s a few things y’all should know about New Orleans. Yes, it was a former home of mine. No, the streets aren’t filled with topless ladies begging for strings of plastic beads (that’s just Bourbon Street between Canal and St. Peter). Yes, Popeye’s Fried Chicken does taste better there. And yes, one of the best American playwrights in history called it home, rubbing elbows with voodoo queens, jazz giants, and a bar proprietor who had a stroke of genius in his idea of combining liquor and laundromats (I can’t speak to the absolute truth of that last statement, but it makes sense… and those kinds of establishments do exist—and are open 24/7). He also famously said that the only “true” American cities are New York City, New Orleans, and San Francisco (“everywhere else is Cleveland”), and I am fortunate enough to have lived in all three. Does that make me a true American? Debatable. Do we always have to agree with eccentric Southern authors? Of course not. But when it comes to indie rock, U.K. outfit Glass Animals—whose name sounds like a simplified, less-wordy version of the title of one of Williams’ most famous plays, The Glass Menagerie—has taken a sort of cue from Williams and his contributions to the elusive genre of American mythology on its second album. Of course the album is not completely about America, though my red, white, and blue blood makes it feel like I’m being totally un-American in assuming so. While many themes on the album can be attributed to current American mindset, this LP speaks to everyone. It’s not about nationalism, or greed, or apprehension—it’s about humanity. All of it. All of us.
Upon first glance, the title of Glass Animals’ sophomore album, How To Be A Human Being, might seem a tad condescending, a tad prescriptive, and/or a tad abstract, even for the more eclectic tastes of today’s hungry youth. How To Be A Human Being is none of these things; rather it’s an exercise in purity and expression, in which the Oxford quartet shatters the crystalline ideal of what it takes to be appreciated, or exonerated, or even just noticed in modern society, as we have all seemed to forget what being a person is all about. Yet the band does it on its own terms, as Glass Animals juggles lyrical images of body positivity, obsession with juvenility, and the absorption of our personalities into digital media. The band’s 2014 debut ZABA navigates a more experimental and somewhat bleaker terrain, hiding heavier primal urges behind bizarre song titles like “Walla Walla” and “Wyrd,” and while How To Be A Human Being hikes a more nuanced sonic path, the track titles—while more grammatically and syntactically correct—still emanate an air of mystery. The song “Pork Soda” is just about as weird as you can possibly imagine, yet it still fits in with the hybridized approach that Glass Animals is known for.
How To Be A Human Being is driven by a number of different styles, encompassing elements of jazz, funk, trip-hop, indie rock, R&B, and even trance. While ZABA found solace in its exuberant peculiarities, How To Be A Human Being aims to be far more varietal in the execution of the quartet’s music. Even the mid-album interlude “[Premade Sandwiches]”—which carries a certain “Fitter Happier” tone within its tasty brevity—tells a story of fervent urgency, a robotic myth of complacency masked by the aroma of EDM pump-up vocals, whose beat-dropping instrumentation is noticeably absent. This track is swiftly followed with the most intriguing track off the album, “The Other Side of Paradise,” in which Miike Snow-like distortion is met with welcome falsetto, almost like some Twilight Zone-inspired ballad smeared with brushstrokes of bastardized electronics, even as the chorus fades away with the bizarre lyrical image of ‘Superparadise I held onto/But I settle for a ghost.’ This particular track, in addition to songs like the distorted nature of “Cane Shuga” and the aforementioned “Pork Soda” (the first line of the chorus being ‘Pineapples are in my head/Got nobody cos I’m braindead’) boisterously catapult the Glass Animals we know and love from ZABA into a realm that melds familiarity with gleeful investigation. The lyrical content on How To Be A Human Being, in the most general sense, is far from normal, yet since it’s Glass Animals, we are able to surrender to the willing suspension of disbelief, as if we were re-reading Beowulf or watching the edited-down VH1 version of Showgirls with the sloppily painted-on bras: the message and mission are there, yet we, as the audience, are left to decide whether or not we can allow our collective reality to be augmented in such a way that believability can intersect with the absurd.
The LP’s first two tracks—“Life Itself” and “Youth”—were the first two songs to ben released before the album’s late summer drop (respectively), and both exhibit a brand of Glass Animals music that is both startling and electrifying. When “Life Itself” made its debut several months ago, the only facets of the track that resembled the Glass Animals we came to admire on ZABA were Dave Bayley’s idiosyncratic vocal stylings and a few glimmers of twinkly production that glistened beneath the surface as the rest of the song’s more ostentatious arrangements cycloned around them, calling upon everything from harps and Asian-tinged string sections to searing electronic key-strokes and guttural percussion. Perhaps the best line of the entire album comes in the song’s first pre-chorus, in which Bayley coos, ‘I sit in the car and I listen to static/She says I look fat but I look fantastic.’ The song “started off as a dark, slow, moody track; quite insular,” according to the artists. “But eventually we realized there was a cheekiness to the lyrics that we hadn’t really explored, so we injected a sense of optimism into the music.” It’s not difficult to picture this particular song as a bleaker number, given Glass Animals’ penchant for more droning, melancholy tunes, yet as the more upbeat track it has since transformed into, “Life Itself” serves as a stalwart anchor for the entire album, allowing the ebb and flow of the LP’s many emotional tides to stroke each corresponding shore, while the memory of the opening track stays buoyant in memory, offering glimpses of comfortable contrast to each of the album’s other ten songs.
The LP’s other main single, “Youth,” which came a few weeks after the release of “Life Itself,” features the more lingering style of vocal structure seen in ZABA tracks like “Gooey” and “Black Mambo,” yet the more acoustic nature of the encompassing orchestration, matched with synthesized cascades that form a bridge between flutes and uttered chirping, delivers images of dreamy lucidity. It’s a willing and organic surrender to the subconscious that matches more mature lyrical content with a childlike mind, almost as if the words are being immediately translated into ancient, evocative tones, like an adult speaking to a newborn that cannot quite grasp the complexities of language. “Youth” demonstrates communication on both animal and human levels, spanning the gap between instinct and intellect in its delivery. As the song melts into the jazzy stylings of the bizarrely titled “Season 2, Episode 3” (not so strange, actually, if you think of the song’s position as the third track on the band’s second album), we are transported to a whole new genre. It’s a terrain that few have dared to explore with such gumption, a marriage of trip-hop and R&B, complete with vocal harmonics clinging to the background that would make Frank Ocean blush.
As the album draws to its close with “Poplar St” and “Agnes,” this hybrid returns in a less dramatic sense, boasting less bright, muted keyboard chords and more George Harrison-inspired guitar riffs that drip rich, fluid melodies, just like the weeping guitar of White Album myth. “Agnes” sounds like a plane taking off—if it were fitted with droning synthesizers as jet engines—yet our aural expectations are challenged when it never quite ascends as anticipated. It’s almost like it’s caught in a sort of limbo that chains it to the tarmac, its engines revving but never gaining enough speed to generate the proper amount of lift—a metaphor that many, I’m sure, can relate to. It’s a song about observation, not action, as the narrator speaks to his subject (possibly the self, possibly another person): ‘You see the sad in everything/A genius of love and loneliness.’ It’s a common notion to feel sadness, or sympathy, or even empathy, when allowing oneself to look beyond the often seemingly trivial nature of one’s own mind. It allows for palpable, reflective feelings of solitude, not truly knowing what someone else experiences in their own mind. Yet at the same time it allows for a sense of unity, as through observations we can speculate that we are all actually unified in the chaotic chemistry that makes up the human mind, the human soul. It’s perhaps the greatest exercise in truly subsisting as a human being.
Even though the band Glass Animals hails from across the pond, the members’ explorations of mystique in everyday human life are delivered in a way that is universally comprehensive. Narcissism, ostracism, hubris, compassion: all of these are pertinent when it comes to the state of the world (our nation in particular), and all are touched on over the course of Glass Animals’ excellent second LP. It might be tongue-in-cheek, it might be ironic… hell, it might even be downright malicious. Whatever the terms, How To Be A Human Being is a triumph in somatic (albeit somewhat sardonic) songwriting. It sounds like we all have the capability to learn a thing or two from these fine gents from Oxford. I doubt it was intended to be a guidebook of how to truly get in touch with humanity, but it seems like a pretty good place to start.
Glass Animals’ How To Be A Human Being is now available via Harvest Records. The band is currently on tour, hitting up the U.K.’s Bestival before starting a North American leg in late September that ends in mid-October (including a spot at San Francisco’s Treasure Island Music Festival). The tour wraps up in November, after a slew of U.K. and European dates. For more information, visit the Glass Animals Facebook page.