Better than: Any other punk band’s “bluesy” phase
Savages is a band of manifestos. Since the London art-punk outfit first exploded onto the international scene with 2013’s punishing debut, Silence Yourself, they have followed the rules you learn in your first essay-writing class: “Tell us what you’re going to tell us, tell us, and then sum up what you’ve told us.” With that in mind, the first lyrics sung by Jehnny Beth during the first song on the first night of their nine-show New York City residency were quite telling:
“I need something new in my ears…I need something pure…I need something new,” Beth wailed before launching, along with bandmates Gemma Thompson, Ayse Hassan, and Fay Milton, into an hour-long set whose first half comprised all new material.
As if to thumb their collective nose at the critics who described them as “Siouxsie Sioux meets Joy Division” on their first outing, the band’s new songs give free rein to the shades of psychedelia buried deep under Silence Yourself‘s mountain of postpunk bass.
This shift was prefigured, of course, by Words to the Blind, the group’s recent “sonic simultaneous poetry” project with Japanese experimental/psych band Bo Ningen. That’s right: Savages released a record this past November and they’ve already got close to a whole album’s worth of new material. That they are willing to travel the rest of the way in front of an audience shows a vulnerability nobody could have predicted even a year ago.
At shows earlier in the band’s career, Savages looked ready to tear the audience limb from limb before disappearing back whence they came. (A factory? The woods? The future?) That we were slightly afraid of them only turned us on more. But last night, they let the mask of persona slip in many ways — from the relative looseness of their compositions to the prevalence of Beth’s lyrics in the mix, even on songs that had previously deployed her voice as one more piece of shrapnel in their sensory assault.
Beth’s banter between songs even made her seem relatable. As it turns out, she is warm, funny, and a little bit dorky. For some songs, Beth read lyrics from her notebook. “In three weeks, I won’t need them,” she promised.
Even more surprising was a brand-new song, “Adore,” which Beth dedicated to “the tragedy that happened in Paris.” The slight, androgynous Frenchwoman managed to evoke both David Bowie and Nina Simone as her existential musings built gradually to a magnificent climax, which saw her ask, “Is it human to adore life? Is it human to ask for more?” before finally proclaiming, “I adore life!” in her powerful belt. A Savages torch song? “Something new,” indeed.
“Do you know a sad person?” Beth asked, introducing yet another new song. “Yes!” yelled someone. “Good,” she replied. “This song is for them. It’s called ‘Sad Person.’ Makes sense so far, right?” Then, while introducing roaring kiss-off “Fuckers”: “There are plenty of motherfuckers out there, so I’ll just let you pick one.” Then: “So much love in the room…sweaty love. We can go all together in the shower.”
As Beth wrote on HuffPost last spring, a large part of her motivation to connect with fans beyond karate-chopping them in the face — as outlined in the first manifesto — was the abundance of love they were giving her: She needed to do something with that energy, lest it be squandered. But does that necessarily mean Savages must move in a gentler, jazzier, less shrieky direction?
It would seem, at least so far, that the older, sharper, louder material is more Savages’ speed. (Not that this show was exactly quiet.) But softness can be just as devastating in its own way, and this shit ain’t done yet. As evidenced by the house’s rapt attention and conspicuous lack of phone-checking, Savages have proven themselves special enough so that fans will — and should — follow them anywhere. That’s a rare level of mutual trust. But if, after opening your heart, you still don’t like the direction Savages are taking, just wait six months, or nine days. They’re evolving at the speed of light.
Random notebook dump: “Jams are better when the people have no dicks to practice wanking on.”