By Jake Murray
"I don't remember the first time / but I think I survived." It's been three years since The Naked and Famous released their titanic debut album Passive Me, Aggressive You and in that time they've not exactly been in hiding. Since their debut release the group have toured the globe pretty much every year, released a live film, and moved to Los Angeles where they began work on their followup. The new album In Rolling Waves is the next step for the group, recorded and produced with ex-NIN bass-fro Justin Meldal-Johnsen and mixed by the Davinci-like Alan Moulder. The album has pushed on from fuzzy guitar-laden teen anthems to, well, a more mature synth-laden post-teen anthem anthology, of sorts.
Bulging in with a throaty synth and a jangly guitar, 'A Stillness' wastes no time in distinguishing the group from their Passive Me, Aggressive You days - if opening tracks are anything to go by (and they almost always are) it's clear from the first listen that you're in for a more carefully constructed, more consciously melodic ride. In an effort to not move too far away from the pop-anthems of the first record, 'Hearts Like Ours' follows with a HUGE chorus driven along by powerful "woahhh". The song, along with 'Rolling Waves', splashes and thrashes in a similar manner to their earlier work but with an added sense of maturity and reservation.
With the "intro" songs out of the way the first of the album's most accomplished tracks, 'Waltz', begins. With a similar timbre to 'The Source' from the quintet's debut album, the song is a slow-building, synth-based track with a steady, eager beat and stunning duet-vocals. A reverb-drenched vocal sample synth leads the way atop a swelling eBow, all the while pushing through dancefloor-friendly motions without ever needing to kick off into something "big" or heavy. Subtleties in Moudler's mixing really show through here with drums jumping from left to right and clever vocal layering on lines "kick up your heels on the double" and "as the worlds pile up" leave this humble production nerd giggling like a wee boy. The song is met with its equal later in the album, 'Grow Old', a 6 minute slowpus™ with more soft fuzzy synths and one of the best uses of vocoder in years. Seriously. Gentle baby mobile chimes float around while a broken guitar glitches sombrely and the synthesiser swells only to die away again. The song, like many others on the record, focuses on the aftermath of a breakup with bitter, almost blasé lyrics about who holds the blame this time: "I'm sorry for explaining how you fucked it up again / now I'm watching you backpedal / I wasn't supposed to feel ashamed."
Lyrically, In Rolling Waves is a huge step forward from Passive Me, Aggressive You, but that's not to say that they were ever bad. Lines like "I am a fire if you hesitate" in 'Waltz' or in 'The Mess': "How does it feel to be on the fault-line? / And how do we feel when we're on the decline? / 'cause it's a hell of a long way to fall just to learn to get up." An important song to mention whilst on this theme is 'I Kill Giants' which, while sounding upbeat and fun, is actually a truly touching, heartfelt song about singer Alisa's mother dying of cancer. 'A Small Reunion' is another interesting song written on an acoustic guitar that builds into a huge string-backed grand finale that seems to be about the group leaving New Zealand for America: "Here's to me and here's to you."
In Rolling Waves is a truly excellent record and an impressive step up from the band's debut. It's also so vast that, to cover everything, this review would have to be twice as long… at least. For some this album might be too soft, since electric guitars are all but gone in favour of spacious layering and reverberance - the songs are still powerful, but not raw or gritty. 'What We Want' is a brilliant throwback to 80's synthpop a-la The Human League, while 'We Are Leaving' is a deep, science fiction soundtrack-ready alien cyborg that could've even been inspired by the recent Tron soundtrack by Daft Punk.
Mostly the record has moved on from its Nine Inch Nails heavy sound and has moved more towards that of M83, or, well, The Naked and Famous. Whether this album is your cup of tea or not, whether you prefer the chunky anthems such as 'All of This', 'Frayed' or 'Girls Like You' it cannot be denied that the group has grown up and moved forward: the production value has increased tenfold from an already high standard, thanks to Justin Meldal-Johnsen and Alan Moudler, and the songwriting & performance is at least on par or above.
The Naked and Famous haven't really slowed down since they broke out across the UK and America years ago, so if this new record and the tour schedule is anything to go by, their plan is world domination or bust - and I very much look forward to catching them next month in London.