God, isn’t ‘We Can’t Win’ the most achingly beautiful song in years? It’s been a long time since I last had a song on repeat for the whole day like that. It’s been a long time, too, since the last time an album ‘clicked’ so suddenly for me as We’re Not Talking. I have been listening to The Goon Sax’ latest since forever, but it soon got stuck in my mind as a case of the disappointing ‘difficult second album’ syndrome (or, as I like to call it, regression toward the mean). Until last week, that is, when the first signs of autumn made me feel vulnerable and susceptible to bouts of worry.
Queue the Goon Sax. “I was told to distance myself from a situation when it makes me nervous,” Louis Forster sings, “But I don’t want distance when distance always seems to be the thing that comes and hurts us“. It’s the familiar vicious circle of overthinking things and then hating yourself for overthinking things; of feeling worried about being unattractive and then worrying that it is unattractive to be a worrier; of longing to be cool and detached instead, but also believing that it is boring to feign being cool with things. It’s much better, and at the same time easier and difficult, to feel. In these moments, I suspect, people like to feel miserable. They want to feel like it’s them vs. the world, like they’re the underdog. After all, everyone loves an underdog, a sympathetic loser (in other words, everyone likes to be as cool as John Lennon singing ‘I’m a Loser’). For one, it’s simpler to fit into a well-defined role. And, more importantly, it’s important to know that you’re not alone.
Herein lies the difference between We’re Not Talking and The Goon Sax’s debut Up To Anything. Whereas the latter indulged in hyper-personal micro-complaints of a trivial yet common nature, this new album presents a more universal view of adolescent suffering, as the occurrence of the plural ‘we’ in the album’s title and on various tracks, like ‘We Can’t Win, lets on. It’s losers of all countries, unite!, as it were.
This shared-fate comraderie is also exemplified in the shifting of perspectives that the addition of drummer Riley Jones as a vocalist allows (the press release cryptically remarks that with three lead singers the band are now “the musical equivalent of an equilateral triangle, the strongest shape in physics”). On ‘We Can’t Win’, the same lines Forster sings are later repeated by Jones, ending with a mutual sing-along of the chorus. These are worn-out tropes – the doomed lovers, the Scott Pilgrim-esque indie underdog – which The Goon Sax bring and sing with heartfelt fervour. Similarly, on the gentle ‘Strange Light’, which is so well-timed and held-back that it sounds too slow and exactly at the right speed simultaneously, Jones changes perspective from ‘you’ to ‘me’, emphasising a common core of failed humanity that we all share.
Nevertheless, there is a fine line between triviality and universality. Whereas their debut was filled with mostly sarcastic, undirected general miserableness, specific enough to condescendingly call ‘cute’, We’re Not Talking adds flourishes to this recipe which almost make these feelings too attractive. Listen, for example, to the Belle & Sebastian strings on ‘Love Lost’. Perhaps that’s why it took me a while to get into this album: it’s all very palatable, and finding the grit, the life, the ache, is sometimes hard. Mind, the small touches are all there, from the way Riley pronounces the word ‘distance’ with disgust on ‘We Can’t Win’ to Forster’s desparate delivery on ‘A Few Times To Many’: “I’m losing touchsss”, he slurs. And I am and always will be a sucker for the talk-singing that the latter has turned into an art. “I’ve got problems that I don’t know how to deal with,” Forster mumbles on ‘Love Lost’, and this time the frustration in his voice is far too genuine to dismiss the line as empty of actual content, despite the fact that it says nothing of substance. In any case, the problems that the band members don’t know how to deal with are spread out all over the album. Telephones are a recurring culprit, pointed at as a source of anxiety on ‘Losing Myself’ (“And now I’m back home / And no one’s calling / That I’m not picking up the phone”) and later too on ‘A Few Time Too Many’. It’s a familiar topic for The Goon Sax, whose ‘Telephone’ from their debut remains one of my favourite tracks of theirs. And telephone terror is not without good reason, especially at their – our – age.
When I suddenly, surprisingly, got hooked on We’re Not Talking, I sat in bed for half a day. “I’ve got a few things above my bed but it feels so empty,” Forster sings on ‘A Few Times Too Many’, and I recall the time when I complained to Kim that she had so many nice things, whereas I’ve only got an ugly biscuit tin and a few trinkets. But now I’ve decorated my room with some of her belongings, and it doesn’t feel so empty. Which is to say that, al things considered, I am not a loser. This isn’t bragging: most of us aren’t, really. But how nice it is to sometimes feel like one, to join the pack of underdogs when life’s got you down momentarily. And that, in the end, is what The Goon Sax do so well: exaggerating normal feelings of normal people in a way that makes us feel special. It’s what indie music was made for.
-- Caspar Jacobs, September 26, 2018