Circa Waves – ‘Sad Happy’

By Fiachra Johnston

Circa Waves’ brand of riff-heavy indie rock has made them one of the standouts of the genre for some time now, yet they’re always pushing boundaries. The sartorial scousers made their full length debut about five years ago, and since then have continued to branch outwards. It’s no surprise then that with over half a decade under their belt, they’ve opted to experiment with form. Taking the increasingly popular route (see: Foals and The 1975) in creating longer-form projects to release over time means bigger risks in that with more work and a longer promotional period, delivering a lacklustre album can be a death blow. This is not the case with ‘Sad Happy’. While its first half not a landmark evolution in form or formula, its second certainly tests new waters, but both show the Liverpool quartet are still making waves in the scene.

‘Sad Happy’, like many of its counterparts, features two halves released as separate LPs: ‘Happy’, which arrived in January, and its sister record ‘Sad’, which lands in March. Out of the two, ‘Happy’ certainly feels more like your bread-and-butter CW album. There’s a nice mix here, tracks like the distortion heavy ‘Be Your Drug’ and the more vocal driven ‘Move To San Francisco’ gel nicely into each other, while more hazy instrumental focused tracks like the closing ‘Love You More’ are able to change the pace of the album without losing any of the first half’s frantic energy. ‘Jacqueline’, the lead single and percussion-blasting first track of the record, is perhaps its strongest point. This is closely followed by ‘Wasted On You’ – one of the most energetic of the first half tracks, a foot-tapping head-bopping halfway point. Every track here is a solid performance by Circa Waves, no glaring weaknesses or bold moves that fall short, but maybe that’s a problem unto itself. There are absolutely no bad songs on this side of the album, but there aren’t any stand out pieces either, nothing that particularly screams ‘Certified Circa Waves Classic’. If you’re a die hard fan, this won’t be an issue, but those who don’t have much interest in CW to begin with won’t be convinced otherwise with this side.

‘Sad’, the second release, gets a little more inventive, less in style (there are still feel-good-sounding songs like the piano-focused ‘Battered And Bruised’ with its aggressively catchy chorus) and more in tone. The energy present in ‘Happy’ is still here, but there’s an edge to it, and with it more daring sounds by Circa Waves. Right from the get go the titular ‘Sad Happy’ lets us know this is a step away from what we’ve just heard. The disco-tinged indie jam sets up the rest of the record incredibly well, and it only gets better with songs like ‘Sympathy’, a nearly entirely acoustic and vocally powered lamentation, and a personal favourite. ‘Train To Lime Street’ is a completely instrumental interlude that slows the record down to a deliciously uncomfortable crawl before leading into the surprisingly morose album closer ‘Birthday Cake’. This is still a CW record but there’s something more here, a sense of hollowness, of anxiety. On a double album that demands its audience slow down and pay attention, this kind of sound works well for it, and if the band is truly set on continuously pushing their own boundaries, this is an incredibly interesting start.

The two halves together do make for wonderful contrast. While one focuses on the past, the other looks to the future. While one does its best to stick to its roots, the other takes a chance on the darker side of the band. There is quite literally something for everyone here. It helps that a double feature like this feels like a logical next step for the band, who after three albums will undoubtedly be looking to further evolve and experiment with their sound, making this a perfect bridge into whatever comes next. Double albums are ambitious ventures but Circa Waves prove that they are at the apex of their career with an expertly delivered feature that highlights some of the best the Liverpudlian group have to offer.

FIACHRA JOHNSTON

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