The XCERTS – ‘Learning How To Live And Let Go’

By Sean Reid

Five years on from embracing heartfelt Americana rock on ‘Hold onto Your Heart‘, The XCERTS have returned for their fifth full-length outing in the form of ‘Learning How To Live And Let Go’. On the surface, it’s one where the Brighton-based trio have considerably regressed. Its 2018 predecessor flourished in producing anthemic rock in abundance, yet ‘Learning…’ is a collective snapshot of The XCERTS’ previous work, allowing their creative juices to flow with mixed results.

Album opener and lead single, ‘GIMME’, is a brash, fuzzy-laden flash that polarised fans upon its release. While it lacks the emotional sentiment of Murray Macleod’s more poignant work, it still manages to highlight his ability to create poppy earworms with ease. Likewise, ‘Car Crash Culture’ and ‘Jealousy’ soon follow, maintaining the momentum. 

While the former is a joyous and glossy slice of 80’s pop-rock with modern quirks subtly springing up throughout, the latter certainly sounds like an XCERTS track. Tom Heron’s punchy drums steadily support the power-chord-driven guitars and Macleod’s distraught words. 

Throughout ‘Learning…’, the XCERTS occasionally have a tendency to cut songs before they’re truly allowed to breathe and be effective. For example, ‘Ache’ swirls with a power-pop surge as Architects’ Sam Carter makes a brief, if not unremarkable, cameo. Its synth-led melody is infectious yet its duet chorus races towards the finish line far too soon. Later on, ‘Inhale (Her)’ brings the tone momentarily down with stripped-back, experimental twists before erupting with a wall of guitars. Again, Macleod and company aren’t able to grab the listener long enough to make the finale as compelling or effective. As they’ve shown previously, they’re certainly capable do doing so. They’re even able to do it on this record.

‘Drag Me Out’ is a stirring, slow-burning anthem that utilises tender piano keys and harmonies with Macleod’s heartfelt words interlaced. This is paired with Everything I Cannot Live Without’, a simple, delicate acoustic number that allows a hushed Macleod to flex his balladic muscles with ease. Together, they are able to exemplify the XCERTS’ ability to write emotionally enticing songs that simply capture the listener’s attention.

Even though ‘Learning…’ has a tendency to lean on characteristics that have been so effective for The XCERTS in the past, there are hints of evolution. ‘Lust In Translation’ is an electro-led number that captures the fear and thrill of young love. Whereas ‘Lovesick’ is a jaunty, blatant pop number that is reminiscent of The 1975 with a hint of Prince. 

Their reliance on past traits does remain intact, but as heard on ‘Blame’, they’re able to incorporate a fizzy, surging pop quality to their urgent driving guitars. As a package, it considerably feels like the most realised and well-executed version of what The XCERTS want to sound like in 2023.

‘Learning…’ ends with a pair of intimate songs that emphasise the poignant, introspective narrative that Macleod threads through the record. ‘My Friends Forever’ is timid in its delivery, again highlighting the trio’s capability to produce emotional, heart-wrenching ballads, adding a succulent, mournful horn at its conclusion. Likewise, ‘It Ain’t Easy’ is an atmospheric and stirring lull with Macleod’s confessional words. However, despite its slow-burning structure, it lacks an effective pay-off. Instead, we’re just left with studio atmosphere noise, ending the album on a barren note.

While ‘Learning How To Live And Let Go’ isn’t The XCERTS’ best work or as instantaneous, it still has an admirable quality. It’s a melting pot of new and old (and reliable) ideas that they use to the best of their ability. Collectively, they’ve again proved they can write infectious, guitar-driven alt-pop with ease, as well as earnest ballads. However, the 12 songs on offer here don’t quite reach the heights of what The XCERTS have done before. In time, ‘Learning…’ could be seen as a transitional record for The XCERTS, but in the meantime, it proves to be a mixed bag of a record that celebrates the trio’s best characteristics with one evolutionary eye on the future.

SÊAN REID

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