One thing that’s great about Scottish shoegaze band The Twilight Sad is that its opening tracks kick ass: The drums of “Reflection of the Television”, off 2009’s Forget the Night Ahead, starts its slow dirge; the aching beauty of the acoustic/electric slide guitar sounds on “Cold Days from the Birdhouse” from the band’s 2007 debut, Fourteen Autumns & Fifteen Winters, make you melt right away; and on its latest, No One Can Ever Know, lead track “Alphabet” sounds like a possessed monosynth booting up. No doubt, The Twilight Sad knows how to make an entrance.
From the get-go, No One Can Ever Know feels distinctly different from the band’s last two records. The trio of singer James Graham, multi-instrumentalist Andy MacFarlane, and drummer Mark Devine (founding bassist Craig Orzel left the band in 2010) has gained serious rhythm-section muscle, which charges through its guitar pedal-heavy din. That din (and any trace of its past accordion sounds) is a lot less prevalent on No One as compared to the preceding two records. The band is exploring entirely different elements of U.K. post-punk here. Play it next to Fourteen Autumns and it would sound like a totally different band if not for Graham’s distinct vocals. It’s not without precedent, as Forget was flecked with jagged sounds.
Listen to No One’s second track, the hard-charging “Dead City” and it’s clear that The Twilight Sad has almost entirely exchanged its ‘90s British-Isles shoegaze touchstones (fellow Glaswegians Mogwai, Irish band My Bloody Valentine) for England’s late-’70s post-punk and proto-industrial ones. The backbeat on “Dead City” is straight-outta-Manchester, Joy Division chug. The grimy synths and guitars are from Cabaret Voltaire’s Sheffield. And, like The Twilight Sad does so deftly and consistently, it all supports a really good vocal hook and catchy riffs. It could make a killer single, even at six-and-half minutes long.
“Sick” is No One Can Ever Know’s actual lead single, the guitar sound on which evokes Hail to the Thief-era Radiohead. But it’s the song’s hissing drum-machine sounds, so bleak- and brutal-sounding they could make Trent Reznor jealous, that really drive the song home. Put it next to “Kill It in the Morning” or “Nil”, and The Twilight Sad could do nicely opening for How to Destroy Angels or Nine Inch Nails, should Reznor decide to tour again. Heck, the high-hat groove of the album’s “Kill It” sounds a bit like “The Hand That Feeds”. It contributes to a distinctly dancier feel at the end of No One, with “Another Bed” mimicking a New Order that charges toward loneliness and depression instead of hope and joy.
The new addition of programmed drums, sequencers, and the blurring between live and programmed drum sounds are the most striking changes about No One Can Ever Know. The Twilight Sad’s last two records sizzled with organic, splashy cymbals, but a drum machine makes the band sound more menacing as well as tight and disciplined sonically. For a young band with only three records under its belt, the exactitude and evolution that The Twilight Sad shows on No One is impressive. Lyrically, Graham comes back to some variation of “never know” throughout the record, repeating its title in the outro of “Dead City”, maybe as an emotionally naked confession, a threat, an existential profession of loneliness… maybe all of those things.
If No One Can Ever sounds like a huge bummer, well, it is. Guilty. But give it a shot. There’s more to The Twilight Sad than just “sad.” Curl up with No One Can Ever Know. Get really good headphones. Turn all the lights off. Lie down somewhere. If you’re sad, in love, spurned, dreading the existential inevitability of your life or deeply discontent or at odds with the state of the world, take comfort or a stiff upper lip in Graham’s bleak lyrics. If you can’t understand him, revel in his warm, Scottish brogue. Sink into the band’s soundscapes. They’re there to comfort you. Get lost. Don’t tell anyone. Let this music be your secret.
Essential Tracks: “Dead City”, “Alphabet”, and “Another Bed”