What’s in a name?
For me, being a long-time denizen of the city, the name of the band A Sunny Day in Glasgow is analogous to the phrase “a cold day in hell.” A sunny day here is about as rare as the proverbial rocking-horse shit or hen’s teeth. Nevertheless, when the sun does indeed choose to reveal itself, the city and its people are transformed. As soon as the temperature climbs above 20 degrees and the ever-present layer of grey evaporates, faces light up, clothes fall off and all manner of revelry and debauchery ensues. The band’s name resonates with me in a way that somehow perfectly mirrors the sound of their latest album Sea When Absent. Not just because of the bright, summery vocals and shimmering textures but also because of how bonkers it can get at times. On that aforementioned day or two a year of sunshine we get in late May, there’s an undercurrent of weirdness that bubbles under and threatens to shift into something a little crazy and dangerous. It’s somewhat exhilarating and so is this record.
Being, as I am, a member of an electronic band, I am sometimes confronted with a peculiar elitism about “real music” or a “real band.” As far as I can tell, this is usually a reference to music that is predominantly performed by guys with loud amps, drums and a flight case of angst, bashed out in sweaty, smoky rehearsal rooms and toured endlessly to tiny venues half-full of indifferent, yawning faces. Not to say that I don’t love a great deal of bands that comfortably fit this caricature. I do… and it’s not a diss! But there’s often a snobbery in certain camps which questions the authenticity of music that leans heavily upon technology and studio techniques. Even now, after hundreds of shows with Chvrches, the version of me who grew up playing in bands, fucking my ears in front of deafening guitar amps and searing crash cymbals occasionally smarts at the fact that there is no drummer, amplifier or indeed any noise on our stage.
When I listen to Sea When Absent, it feels apparent to me that this record was put together entirely in the studio, perhaps several different studios. (The members of the band were never in the same place at the same time given that they all live in different cities and sometimes even hemispheres.) This disconnectedness is not in any way a criticism, in fact I think it is a great strength. You can really hear the space between the elements and the members. Not that this is a sparse-sounding album, but to my ears there is a looseness and a delightful incongruity to the arrangements which constantly jars and excites when I listen. It’s possible that it is all a happy, shambolic accident, but in my experience as a writer and producer, it takes a great deal of skill to be this confident and bold with musical decisions and to actually pull it off. This is no accident and it’s definitely “real music” by a “real band.”
Typically, in any given song there will be a number of elements making up the arrangement which drop out and are reinstated as we move from verse to bridge to chorus, etc. Here it often seems like there’s nothing of the sort going on. Bursts of electronic color will pop out of nowhere and then disappear, never to be heard again. Saccharine vocal hooks are mashed up, gated and looped and then are no more. Entire sections are suddenly stripped back to nothing more than vocals and drums. This is seemingly not for any dramatic or emotional effect, but perhaps just because they felt like it. It often feels like the musical equivalent of an excited child rummaging through an overloaded toy box, stuffed to the brim with precious plastic miscellany, picking up one of the toys as if it were for the first time and then discarding it and moving onto the next gaudy treasure. Most bands don’t have this many sounds and ideas in their whole career. At any moment it could easily veer into the realms of sensory overload but somehow it is jusssst focussed enough.
I have no idea what role producer Jeff Zeigler had in the studio here. It’s really great to see his production star in the ascendant with the War of Drugs album Lost in the Dream and this. I would love to have been a fly on the wall in the studio to get a sense of the creative dynamic at work here. My best guess is that he was tasked primarily with stripping things out and creating space for all of the melody and insanity to breathe. Perhaps his role was to provide a sort of duct tape continuity and funnel the maelstrom into loose coherency. Maybe I will investigate further; I am most curious.
Usually, with this kind of music (yes I am purposefully avoiding use of the ’s’ word) the guitars and vocals are drenched in swathes of reverb. There is next to none of that on offer here. It’s an extremely bold move and in my head I can hear another version of this album which does adhere to the traditional genre tropes, and I love that fictional album too. But this is way classier, braver, more arresting and more colorful as a result of that omission.
I know it’s a bit shameful, but I rarely listen to new albums more than a handful of times. There’s just so much coming out all the time vying for attention. Most of it I find to be pretty disposable. Generously, I would say there are maybe three or four records a year that really connect with me like this. It’s far from a consistent piece but it’s rarely less than fascinating and I feel like I will be soaking in its dreamy Crayola-inscribed psychedelia for months to come.
God only knows how they’re going to play it live though….