In 2008 Glasvegas were adored, at least here in the UK. Lead singer James Allan became famous for his Joe Strummer looks and his personal, emotive lyrics. On their eponymous first album he burred about social workers, real-life murder cases and absent fathers over a thick vibration of guitar. Glasvegas offered heartbreaking snapshots of modern life; the drums were Spectorian but the subject matter laced around the alleyways of Glasgow, all darkness, social workers and Allan spitting lines like, “I’m gonna get stabbed.” Transcending their DIY beginnings, their debut went platinum over here. It was a classic success story, “the quintessential noise-pop set of the modern age.” Glasvegas didn’t go unnoticed in America either: Lady Gaga sent them a photo of herself in a leather jacket and quiff, asking if she could be their “Geraldine.” They appeared on Late Show with David Letterman. Rolling Stone and Spin briefly poured hyperbole on them. The UK press was chuffed with their latest indie baby, smoothing down their cowlicks before parading them in front of Pitchfork. There was so much promise.
But not everyone liked that debut album, especially in the States. “Glasvegas is determinedly provincial, insisting there is grandeur in everyday lives. But what sounds rousing in Britain can sound sodden and overwrought to American ears,” said the New York Times. Pitchfork was also unimpressed: “Like so many other post-Oasis bands, Glasvegas somehow became swept into UK guitar-rock’s ‘go big or go home’ mentality; they hooked up with Muse and Mars Volta producer Rich Costey and have turned out an album that’s more Kasabian than vintage Creation.” The dream for many British bands who’ve made it in the UK is to “crack America.” But America didn’t really want Glasvegas. Nor did it really want them on the band’s synth-heavy second album, 2011’s over-egged Euphoric Heartbreak.
Now they’re back with their third album, Later… When the TV Turns to Static, produced by Allan, released on their own label Go Wow Records. They’re playing small venues all over the UK. Allan has forsaken the all-white outfits he’d begun sporting around the time they began recording their second album in sunny Santa Monica, California. Now he says “I meet people who come up and say, ‘I am so happy that you are wearing black.'” That comment is a wonderful metaphor for the sound of the album: Glasvegas aren’t looking for the light anymore, and many fans will be relieved that they’ve returned to their darkness. The synths are less audible on this album than they were on the previous one, and the big, bombastic sounds have been replaced with fuzzy guitars and lyrics about coming back to where Allan used to live. On “If,” a rough-and-ready slow-burner of decadent misery, he sings about pulling through the hard times: “Life is good and life is dark/I embrace them both.” The band are back in the rain and grey, they’ve buried their aspirations a little more, they’ve returned to the gutter.
On the stand-out track “Choices,” Allan presents us with devastating options: “I don’t wanna die/But I don’t want to live now… I don’t wanna be told/But independence is hard to hold.” It’s a heartbreaking sentiment, made all the more poignant by the gorgeous vocal effect and stripped-down instrumentation which builds gently towards the end of the song. But the album as a whole is problematic. Having pushed their sound somewhere else on album two, it’s harder for them to squeeze it back into its original mould while still keeping credibility.
Some of the old black magic returns on songs like “All I Want Is My Baby” which re-visits the tired and tested twisted ’60s girl group idea from the first album, Allan wailing in the verses about the mistakes of society before dropping into a simple lyrical refrain in the chorus. It’s a great idea for a song, but its flaws lie in its simplicity. We already know Allan can cut up injustices into lyrics, but now he needs to take that somewhere else. On “I’d Rather Be Dead Than Be with You,” a piano ballad, Allan presents a spoken-word list of mundane activities: “Watching TV/going for a walk in the park/drinking a cup of tea/daydreaming/reading magazines,” which comes across as affected. His ambitions for this album seem to have been repressed, and the result, while at times beautiful, feels superficial. He’s mining the misery again, but his heart’s just not in it. But what can he do? Audiences don’t want him by the beach, dressed in white. It’s fine for James Allan to have choices, as long as they’re bleak.