Circa Survive – ‘Two Dreams’

By Ian Kenworthy

Everything seems to be going so well; you’re drifting along, but you don’t realise it’s all unravelling around you. Your relationship comes to pieces, leaving you with a broken heart and a handful of memories. More than seventeen years after their debut album, Circa Survive have called it a day. All good things come to an end, and that’s disappointing. Yet, to soften the blow, they announced one last album. And that’s disappointing too, because it’s not at new album at all; it is fact their two recent EPs back-to-back. ‘Two Dreams’ becomes the band’s epitaph, and a very strange note to go out on.

Back in 2018 the band released ‘The Amulet’, a thoughtful, soaring record that seemed to be the pinnacle of their creativity. Logically, ‘Two Dreams’ is the next step, but it’s a different approach. There are more keyboards, more loops, the songs are focused yet freer, and despite all this it’s still recognisably their sound; atmospheric rock, filled with effects-drenched guitars and powerful basslines all lead by Anthony Green’s heavenly vocal melodies. It’s the same type of song, but they have a slightly different approach. They share the same sense of atmosphere and the same delicate beauty. Every song is distinctive, every song feels quality; years of experience mean they know how to carve an effective song, even when trying new things. It’s gently experimental and feels fresh.

Let’s make something clear; firstly, this is a great collection of songs, you could listen to anything here and be impressed, immersed and even moved. Every song merits discussion, every song is doing something different but it’s also slightly underwhelming as an album; the thing that’s missing is focus.

Clocking in at just under an hour, there is plenty of music to sink your teeth into. The six songs, making up part one, ‘A Dream About Love’, is the more delicate and beautiful, with ‘Imposter Syndrome’ setting the tone. It’s solid, possibly even great. This is their new sound, and a firm interpretation of this approach. There’s a rawness and the snapping snare drum hacks a strong emotional beat. By comparison, ‘Gone For Good’ is so delicately beautiful that the sound of fingers sliding across a fretboard is its main refrain. In the middle ground there’s a propulsive energy to ‘Sleep Well’ created by a drum shuffle and gentle keyboard riffs, but it’s at its most immersive on ‘Drift’ which rides along on Nick Beard’s roaring bassline.

The album’s second half, the stronger half, is made up of ‘A Dream About Death’. Broadly similar in structure, it feels like a distorted Rorschach blot of the first, mirroring its form in unusual ways. It’s at its most easy and beautiful on ‘Die On The West Coast’ and the most experimental on ‘Late Nap’ where the stabbing keyboards and its stubborn refusal to stay in one form feel really unusual and yet, it’s Green’s voice soaring over the top that holds everything together. The clearest example is the song ‘Curitiba’ which feels like a butterfly crawling from its chrysalis; what appears interesting, even ugly, becomes striking as it opens its wings.

Circa Survive are over, but Green is still a member of Saosin and supergroup L.S. Dunes – not to mention his solo albums – however this band has been his main avenue of expression and there is an approach to the work here that he doesn’t capture elsewhere. The context is different, more specific, and he sings in a different way so this is a poignant end, and when he wraps his vocal chords around ‘Sleep Well’ it’s hard to think of a better performance. You’ll also notice the way the song dovetails with ‘Discount On Psychic Readings’ as structurally they tread the same ground, albeit one with optimism and one without hope.

Recent speculation about the band’s demise proved to be true, but Green took to Twitter to deny it, so it’s fitting that the overriding theme is death and dissatisfaction. Even on the songs explicitly about love, his lyrics address what he thinks or perhaps wants love to be, not what is it. There is also a notable repetition of the phrase “It’s like I wasn’t even there” during the outro to ‘Discount On Psychic Readings’ making it feel like a persistent denial, and you’d swear it was about the band’s disintegration. Indeed, there’s something quite fitting about a band whose music often had dreamlike qualities saying goodbye in the form of two dreams.

Ironically, there’s a good chance these twelve songs were originally split over two EPs because they didn’t feel cohesive and squashing them together in one long piece means the track order is loose and ineffective. Halfway through, the six-minute ‘Our Last Shot’ gets stripped apart as it reaches the end of its runtime. Green finishes singing, the band keeps playing until everything has fallen away, which would have made the perfect closer to the album, and their career, but no one seems to have thought of that. Instead, we’re left with ‘Buzzhenge’ as the closing track, and although its final refrain begins ‘…you want me to stay’, the music is out of step and it’s a missed opportunity. Shuffle the songs around and you get a more satisfying journey, but as it stands, the album is a series of fractured images, fitting oddly together, making for a slightly disorientating experience. In fact, ‘Two Dreams’ is an almost perfect name for it.

Much like a lover struggling to find the right words to express their loss, ‘Two Dreams’ isn’t sure what it wants to say. It’s a charming yet unfocused goodbye, wandering through memorable soundscapes and bewitching you with its charms. Although it’s an end, it’s a dream you just don’t want to wake up from.

 IAN KENWORTHY

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