Review: Blaenavon – Everything That Makes You Happy

The second full-length album from Blaenavon features some snappy songwriting and a lot of later Foals worship. It’s unmistakable in the yowling, full-throated verses of opening single I Want You, which is one of the strongest songs on the album. Anthemic and uplifting, it belies singer and guitarist Ben Gregory’s knack for writing sharp hooks, carried by preppy palm-muted guitar lines and rolling piano chords. It’s not the most unique or original song out there, but it’s good, and it feels sincere. Catatonic Skinbag quickly follows with a gritty pop-punk rush and a simple chorus that quickly embeds itself in the listener’s consciousness.

It also lends itself to repetition significantly better than the album’s title track of the same name, which bludgeons the listener with the same five-word phrase with all the subtlety of Morrisey wearing his ‘fuck the Guardian’ t-shirt. The album definitely slumps in the middle, and it takes a slightly middle-of-the-road tack. Skin Scream manages to feel a lot longer than its three and a half minute runtime thanks to a never-ending chorus which sounds all but identical to the verse. The following song Fucking up My Friends goes some way towards fixing this, sounding like it was recorded by actual people than arranged on Garageband, although what is ostensibly a strong vocal performance from Gregory is buried under a slew of extra effects and instrumentation which muddies the best part of the song. It’s kind of like listening to Chris Martin’s stream of consciousness without any of the direction of his craftsmanship.

All Your Vanity is much better – truer to the initial aesthetic and featuring some of the strongest songwriting on the album, including a great line about Narcissus and a superficial comparison between fruit and human anatomy. If anything, songs like this are frustrating because they show that Blaenavon are more than capable of writing catchy, hooky songs riddled with personality. However, a lot of the time the personality being evoked sounds like someone else: Back This Year features a high, distorted guitar lead smelling of ozone that follows the vocal line of the chorus a la The Strokes; The Song’s Never Gonna Be the Same ironically recalls a lot of radio-friendly 90’s Britpop, with a swelling orchestral crescendo that feels completely at odds with the rest of the songs here. The further the tracklist progresses, the greater the sense of déjà vu that accompanies it.

In an interview with NME, Gregory talks about his struggles with depression between making the band’s first album and this one, and how the more upbeat, tongue-in-cheek songs on ETMYH are the product of him wanting to make other people happy. While his cause is admirable and music is a powerful (and safe) way to deal with feelings that can be incredibly corrosive if left internalised, it’s hard to shake the impression that the songs on this album aren’t the ones that he really wants to make.

Somewhere inside this album is a very solid EP’s worth of ideas, strung out to ten songs when just featuring the best three or four would have been much more effective. Everything about it feels very safe, like the corners and rough edges have been sanded off to leave a finished product as unchallenging as the album cover. Compared to their first album That’s Your Lot, ETMYH lacks the teeth and passion that likely won them their fans in the first place. The swirling complexity and atmospheric textures are gone, replaced by cheery indie-pop that offends nobody but equally does little to impress. In a technical sense, it’s a good album: the musicianship is solid, and aside from some questionable production choices it’s well-mixed. It just doesn’t sound that much like Blaenavon.

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