‘They seem fixed on the idea of getting back to something real, not forward to it’ – Ian Maleney reviews the debut album from Savages.
In their relatively short time as a band, the conversation around Savages has grown from a murmur in the British press to a full-on world-wide hype phenomenon, in the classic NME style. The band have been held up as four figures of intensity and integrity and purveyors of real, serious music. With guitars in, natch. This is unfortunate because such it would seem that such conversations are doomed to fail, doomed to melt into their own self-consciousness after an increasingly short period of time. It might not be entirely their fault, (old media desperate for a reminder of their glory days are just as much to blame) but the very serious tone of their all-caps manifestos to date have been nothing if not an attempt to guide the listener in how they are supposed to be listening – to the record and during live shows. They came across as an attempt to exert extra-musical boundaries on the music itself, to highlight and circumscribe the themes and aims of the music, to self-define. The music is this, not that, trust us, we made it.
At this stage, the kind of music that elicits this response of embedded authenticity cannot ever be considered original as it relies on the memory of past shocks to the popular music system. From punk to old-school hip-hop to Detroit techno, the genre is irrelevant. What is important is that the style of the music matches what was once an important sound in that genre’s history. Savages themselves seem fixed on the idea of getting back to something real, not forward to it and much of the criticism leveled at them has been about their lack of originality. A lot of the fun in listening to them is spotting the marks of older bands embedded in their music, from Fugazi in the opening seconds to Nick Cave on the last song. In between we can bring up The Banshees, PiL, Dead Kennedys, The Melvins, even a sludgy Black Sabbath on ‘Strife’.
If innovation then is out the window, we must consider the music itself on how it fits into tradition, how it builds on and add to it, even if the tradition being drawn on has generally focused on forcefully avoiding, undermining and sometimes destroying tradition. Savages then are a traditional band. Drums, bass, guitar and vocals. The classic rock and roll line-up, which demands a front-woman and Jehnny Beth is a magpie when it comes to nicking other singers’ ticks. In its best moments, Beth’s voice sounds like Patti Smith’s voice, the way it undulates around long, drawn out syllables and comes crashing into the rest of the band at the end of it, the way she focuses on repeated words, ‘Husbands, husbands, husbands, husbands”. (“Horses, horses, horses, horses”…) More often it sounds like Karen O, without O’s sense of humour and genuine, wilful abandon. Sometimes it even sounds like Conor O’Brien of Villagers, earnest and lacking the words to pull off the emotional gut punch it so desperately wishes to impart. Like O’Brien, Beth makes every phrase theatrical, every word straining to highlight its own importance, its vital presence, without actually saying very much at all.
The lyrics are a sticking point. While there is a chance the subject of a given song might be interesting, the words chosen to get at it are rarely imaginative or insightful in the least, with Beth’s brutalist, anti-poetic blankness leaving everything open to a cold form of interpretation. ‘Hit Me’ centres on ideas of unwarranted female victimization, inspired by the misinterpreted tears of porn star Belladonna. The music, perhaps for the only time, slips into outright pastiche of classic punk bonehead sleaze, built on a ham-fisted, one-two drum beat and fast, sloppy chords of dissonant guitar. The chorus goes, “Tell me, tell me, tell me/Help me, will you help me?/Tell me, tell me, tell me/Hit me, will you hit me now?/Hit me, hit me with your hands”.
Perhaps the self-consciously messy music is an ironic feminist joke and they’re playing badly because clearly they need some guys, some real men, to show them how to play, mirroring the lyrics in a roundabout way of taking the piss out of mansplainers the whole world round? It’s hard to know. If it is indeed a joke, it’s a welcome break from the unbearably straight-faced posturing that surrounds it. If it’s not a joke (on some level at least), it’s a pretty awful song.
Silence Yourself feels like an album that is trying to return to a refined, elemental sense of simplicity, the way the Stooges or Joy Division or even Mudhoney did. The band cast themselves in relief against the needlessly complex surface noise – white noise, every frequency at once – that would distract us from being our pure, honest, true selves. Distract us from focus and clarity. Their attempt to strip back to the bare necessities is admirable in some sense but their refinement constricts them; they never cut loose from those self-imposed shackles and end up somewhere wild and unexpected. There is no fresh take on the sounds that are being used or the forms that are being inhabited, the traditions invoked. Rather than arriving at those inherited sounds because of their own contemporary purpose, the band seem to attempt to reach through the sound, through the associations and the old meanings, to the purpose this kind of noise formerly (and formally) denoted. This feels like a backward approach and it contributes to the sense of Silence Yourself being an almost entirely aesthetic proposition, which is at odds with Savages’ outlined manifestos, which are at their heart, anti-aesthetic.
For many of the bands that Savages reference, and for much of the whole post-punk era, form and function went hand in hand. The aim was to dismantle rock music, to make it reflect the weirdness, the individuality, the unbelievable realities, of life lived on the fringes of society because of a dissatisfaction with that great, hulking monoculture. The music reflected this in the way it undermined the tropes of rock music’s past, whether tempo, instrumentation or subject matter, anything that could be twisted and torn would be. The No-Wavers went all out and just said “Fuck all that” and fucked it in a skip, re-inventing from the ground up while others incorporated and re-imagined so that punk music and art could stay free of that “white, male, corporate oppression” that Kim Gordon sang about all those years ago. The music resonated then (and still does) because it was anti-hegemony; it opened the doors to potential new voices, new stories who were side-lined by the traditional industry. It was empowering. This is the legacy that Savages align themselves with, but on Silence Yourself they lack the musical ability, personality and vision to ground these ideas here in the present and make them truly relevant again. Without the desire for structural change, the breaking down of barriers, punk music generally has very little purpose and Silence Yourself, for all its bluster, feels like a retreat rather than an attack. As an album it is technically solid and aesthetically consistent, but it feels like an empty shell of punk spirit, where all that’s left is the look, the volume and some disconnected rhetoric.