Phil Lively’s The Fall was the kind of album I shouldn’t have wanted to listen to last year, full of misery, and wallowing in self-pity. Did I enjoy listening to it, just because it made me feel better, that I was not falling that hard myself at that moment? No, I don’t think there was any schadenfreude or similar there. Rather, deserved appreciation for a supremely good album. And that is probably why, after having reviewed the album back in February, it remained in my list of top five releases for the year. I still get a lot of enjoyment now from The Fall, and would still heartily recommend it.
So what to make of its follow-up, we are…? (And, despite several releases from Phil on his Bandcamp page in between, as far as I’m concerned, this IS the follow-up.) The simplest answer is that we are… is very much a Phil Lively album, and if you loved The Fall (as I did), you’ll also love we are… (as I do). When I received the album for review, Phil almost apologetically stated that it was very different to The Fall. To my ears, however, it’s really not that different at all. As I let Phil know after my initial listen, my first impressions were that it may be a different garment, but that it was very much cut from the same cloth. So for those familiar with The Fall, you may as well not bother reading further; just make the purchase now, and be glad that you did. But if you insist on carrying on, let’s compare and contrast…
In terms of contrast, we are… even looks different from the offset, before a note is heard. Rather than the black cover of The Fall, the cover art for we are… is a screaming mass of colour. This might indicate that the new album is not the bleak and depressing affair of its predecessor, and in a sense it is not – but the screaming mass is as important as the colour. Nothing is ever as simple as it seems, and appearances can often be deceiving. We can all be guilty of putting up a façade of feeling better and healthier than “we are…” while the screams are just beneath the surface. Managing to pack as much as Phil does into a song, without it sounding complex or chaotic, is an art, and he’s clearly very good at it. In addition, so much of what I praised in my review of The Fall is still there, but simply better, showing how much Phil has grown in his confidence and mastery in a relatively short time. we are… is more dynamic and more melodic.
That said, the greater dynamic range does mean that you may need to pump up the volume. Almost every time I listen to we are… I have forgotten how quietly it begins, and start querying whether I’ve actually pressed play. There are no words to opening number With Every Day, but the title encapsulates what the album seems to be about to me. While The Fall had a discernible, linear concept that was easily understood and followed, we are… reminds me of Porcupine Tree’s The Incident in presenting a series of vignettes that have a theme of sorts, but which are more or less discrete. Like The Incident, each track seems to concern the consequences of, or reaction to, an incident. And that incident need not be something especial so much as something that can occur With Every Day. I’d not exactly call it an overture, but it certainly sets the scene for the album, and the album’s concept (at least, as I’ve inferred it) very nicely.
Under Surveillance is the first song then, and it’s easily one of my favourites on the album. I love the way it sounds so soft, delicate and beautiful, but any attention to the lyrics reveals just how dark a song it is. It reminds me a lot of John Lennon, but Phil manages to couch his vitriol and vehemence in a cocoon of soft warmth, while Lennon tended to let the sneer show through the veneer. The true darkness and menace of the photos taken in Under Surveillance is more overt in the following instrumental Random Pictures.
No More is another track that begins quietly, so that when the piano notes kick in it’s akin to a jump scare. And this is the score to a horror, in a way. As dark as Under Surveilance, but in a different way. This is a song that would not have been out of place in The Fall, and could almost be an alternate ending to that album. It appears to be an instrumental for much of its length, and one full of atmosphere and emotion. It reminds me of Anathema in the way the instrumentation crescendos, cries out and wails, only to drop away and allow the vocals to become the focal point – before the angst and agony returns in swathes and squalls of sound. As they slowly ebb away, so presumably does the life of the protagonist. Well, I did say it was dark…
Of Angels & Devils, despite sounding melancholy, comes as quite a relief after No More. It’s complexion changes considerably when the beat kicks in, sounding perversely upbeat. Its effectively the centrepiece for the album, and a grand one at that. It revels in electronic and industrial glory as a BBC sample plays over the top, creating a track of quite some cognitive dissonance, due to the nature of the commentary and the music blaring buoyantly below it. In a way, it almost reflects the incident itself, which was live-streamed by witnesses and broadcast on YouTube.
Always Winter begins wonderfully with an introductory passage that’s not unlike the industrial beat of much of The Fall, allowing the song to follow Of Angels & Devils in a way it couldn’t have if it began with the more delicate passage that accompanies the sparse vocals. Back to the beat, but with sombre keys as a counterpoint, before falling away again. I really love the way this track develops and oscillates in sound. Definitely another favourite of mine.
Pillars, for me, is the altar ego of Under Surveillance. It shares a lot of the warmth and beauty of the earlier song, but without any of the darkness. In fact, it’s easily one of the most optimistic songs on the album, and given all that has gone before, it would have been easy to make this the final number, bringing a sort of resolution to the album. Pillars feels like it’s questioning all the reactions prior, and suggesting there could have been a better way. It’s got to be the best way to end an album, right? Well, so I thought upon first listen, but Phil soon showed me why it was not, with what is surely my favourite track on the album.
On Borrowed Time is such a beautiful and poignant song that ends the album more perfectly than Pillars ever could have. It also, to my ears, follows on and elaborates upon Pillars, for while Pillars ends with the idea that the answers are out there if you know where to look, On Borrowed Time (which we are all on, With Every Day), reminds us to look around at the ones we love. And just as they are reasons for us to keep on, so to them, we are…
01. With Every Day (2:42)
02. Under Surveillance (4:12)
03. Random Pictures (2:56)
04. No More (6:42)
05. Angels & Devils (5:50)
06. Always Winter (6:10)
07. Pillars (3:48)
08. Bad Infant (3:23)
09. On Borrowed Time (8:43)
Total Time – 44:26
Phil Lively – All Instruments & Vocals
Record Label: Bandcamp” rel=”noopener” target=”_blank”>Independent
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 5th November 2021