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Review: Savages Weren’t the First to Make Love a Battlefield on ‘Adore Life’

SPIN Rating: 6 of 10
Release Date: January 21, 2016
Label: Matador Records

Savages‘ conflicted thesis statement for their seething sophomore LP, Adore Life, lopes into the album’s stark black-and-white frame on its flamenco-tinged second track, “Evil”: “Don’t try to change / The way they made you,” Jehnny Beth snarls from deep within her throat. During the song’s coda, she yelps the title over and over again, as if trying to exorcise her own demons by breaking them upon Fay Milton’s punishing drums. Her verses’ sneering terms are broad, yet specific enough to encompass religion (“Stay Catholic”) and how women are socialized in our culture (“Only one way to raise a family”), but those two lines in particular apply to how the clique of four imperious London punks chose to follow their towering 2013 debut, Silence Yourself. Really, they also apply to how any band grows in power, maturity, and technique while staying faithful enough to what their audience expects from them.

Plenty of artists don’t care about that last part, but Beth, Milton, guitarist Gemma Thompson, and bassist Ay?e Hassan do. Silence erupted through headphones and amps and thrashed necks forward and back with rare feral ferocity, channeling the future ghosts of Michael Gira and Nick Cave. And then there was the content roaring out of Beth’s mouth — lyrics so simultaneously brunt and obtuse that their subtleties were somewhat taken for granted: One speed-metallic ode to consensual BDSM was believed to be about domestic violence by the pearl-grasping set.

To recapture live crowds’ rapt responses to their sets of tightly coiled restraint and eviscerating release, Savages posted up in Brooklyn for a January residency, under the auspices of testing out new material with those who would be most keen on absorbing it. For their second album they also enlisted longtime producer Johnny Hostile (who’s also Beth’s partner). The four unfailingly black-clad musicians went to “shake things up” after a stagnant writing session on their home turf, and their winter of discontent pushed them to write ten songs about the exact opposite of what fans might have expected: Life, love, and — gasp — actually caring.

That all sounds a little boring on paper, and can be on the lyrics sheet as well. Not even Beth’s rockabilly Mark E. Smith yelps over Hasan’s taut, strutting bass can save “Sad Person” from the tired comparison of love to drugs: “What happens in your brain / Is the same as a rush of cocaine.” Her songs of the heart work better when they’re tortured into strange new shapes by Thompson’s fretwork. On “Adore,” at first she emotes to the point of straight-up Morrissey, plaintively wondering, “Is it human to adore life?” over the chorus’ crashing, Johnny Marr-reminiscent guitars. It isn’t until she howls the title, her voice burning brightly (and then out) in a vortex of hissing hi-hats and simmering crackles, that hairs raise and you remember why you wanted to rip off the head of that douchebag who objectified Milton.

When they try “Slowing Down the World” on the next track, which comes and goes with ho-hum surges of static feedback — which already, at this point in the record, seems to be nothing more than a device for filling the absence of more novel noises — it’s a bit of a disappointment. Adore Life‘s second half is much heavier than the first, with roiling brown notes of background noise ricocheting in the void as Beth weaponizes love by contextualizing it in terms of war: the title of “Surrender,” retribution (“This is what you get when you mess with love!”). Much of Savages’ initial acclaim came from those craving sleek yet unfettered rock, who had their eyeballs melted by those strobe lights and the musicians’ own heated emanations, and it’s not hard to understand how a New York test crowd would go nuts over such thundering homages to Throbbing Gristle.

Too often on tape, though, the album sags under its own weight. The  f**k you and your iPhone, too rage of Silence Yourself, bristling inexhaustibly with riffs so wiry they’re wince-inducing, has been sapped from its successor. Love can be savage, but it can be even more difficult to smash together such intimate feelings, even if they’re boiling over so much you want to put your fingers down the other person’s throat (as on “When In Love”). Gnarly rippers don’t come without at least a little cold-eyed glint and bitter, gritted teeth. And this time, as they say themselves, Savages chose love.