“Is it human to adore life?” asks Savages vocalist Jehnny Beth on “Adore”, the de facto title track of her band’s violently self-assured sophomore album, Adore Life. She repeats the question at least a half-dozen times before the song is finished, as if convinced she’ll get closer to the answer by digging into the words themselves.
If Beth were a superhuman — and it’s easy to imagine her as one, dressed all in black and prowling across the stage like a predatory shadow — her power would lie in this kind of manic repetition. Those who caught the London-based post-punk foursome during their recent stretch of nine shows in New York City will attest to how the singer seems to grow in stature as each song lurches back toward its refrain. Alas, the whole point of Savages is not to aspire to superhumanity but to embrace its inverse: the vulnerable, contradictory state of being human and trying to figure out just what the hell that means.
Let’s linger on that question for a moment: “Is it human to adore life?” In the face of all the suffering that defines so many aspects of the human experience, it’s fair to wonder if there’s something perverse about finding pleasure in life’s volatility. Love, in Beth’s constantly churning worldview, is a powerful act of emancipation, as well as a reminder that you don’t have to be cruel or callous to be selfish. “I adore life!/ Do you adore life?” she repeats in the song’s outro, challenging — even threatening — the listener to take the side of the self-righteous.
In the five or so years since Savages formed, the band has been hailed as one of the great rock acts to emerge in the 21st century. Of course, this hasn’t staunched the flow of comparisons to art-punk luminaries of the previous century, from the obvious British tentpoles (Wire, Siouxsie and the Banshees) to the slightly more obscure (German krautrockers Faust, American avant-garde composer Diamanda Galás). Adore Life will do nothing to detract from Savages’ vice-like hold on the music media, which ingests so much indifference that we sometimes forget what it feels like to have our asses thoroughly kicked, shredded, and spit out by a three-minute punk song.
Adore Life, like its 2013 predecessor, Silence Yourself, champions the visceral, analog aspects of music as a means of protecting oneself and reclaiming one’s identity in the post-Internet world. Savages are famous for staging awkward encounters with their audiences that end in mutual discomfort, whether it’s banning cell phones or treating an unsuspecting crowd to 40 minutes of experimental dance. They can’t quite achieve this same level of antagonism on record, so they take a different tack on Adore Life, stringing together 10 songs that willfully contradict one another and force the listener to distinguish the overarching message.
Though its default stance is interrogative, Adore Life opens with a pummeling track called “The Answer”. The song unfolds in furious triplets, with guitarist Gemma Thompson and bassist Ayşe Hassan generating a river of distortion that buoys Beth’s continuous refrain: “Love is the answer.” There’s a sinister current running beneath this phrase, as elsewhere Beth expresses jealousy, insanity, and other notions that seem to contradict the very nature of love. Taken as a whole, “The Answer” is a galloping mess that pulls no punches and outpaces even the fiercest tracks on Silence Yourself.
Elsewhere, the band’s intensity tends to reveal itself in subtler ways. “Evil” bears all the lyrical signifiers of an “us vs. them” punk anthem, but it’s powered by a disco beat that lends itself more to the dance floor than the mosh pit. The song briefly slows to a crawl in the chorus, during which Beth pleads, “Don’t try to change” over Thompson’s shadowy approximation of a surf rock melody. Of course, the band’s own press release states that Adore Life is “about change and the power to change.” If you don’t know which message to take seriously, you get the sense that the band is fully engaged in the same struggle.
Though Beth and Thompson are often singled out for their contributions, there isn’t a rock band in recent memory that divides labor so equally among its four members. An argument can be made for each member being the lynchpin that holds the band’s entire universe together. Hassan’s methodically precise bass lines, for example, routinely steal the show at live performances, and they pull off the same feat during the verses of “Slowing Down the World” and the extended, almost painfully tense buildup of the cathartic “I Need Something New”. Drummer Fay Milton also gets plenty of chances to shine, most notably in the off-kilter rhythms of “Surrender” and the steady chaos that propels “T.I.W.Y.G.” forward.
The latter song is the kind of ripper that’s liable to turn aggro dudes into human cannonballs at a typical punk show, but Savages aren’t a typical punk band, and they emphatically don’t stand for that kind of bullshit. The track’s chainsaw guitar squeals and single-note bass attack combine to form an intentionally aggressive stance, which Beth draws power from as she wails, “This is what you get when you mess with love!” It’s a silly line if you pause to think about it, and it doesn’t quite jive with the idea, expressed earlier, that “love is the answer.” But Beth has a way of mining every line for untapped linguistic potential, and her voice explodes outward in such a way that even abstract concepts register as acutely as flames licking at our feet.
Adore Life is many things, but the thing it feels most like is a celebration. On one level, it’s a celebration of the fact that guitar-driven rock music is probably here to stay. But it’s also a celebration of life at its strangest, messiest, and most vital. “I understand the urgency of life,” Beth sings on “Adore”, and her words don’t just echo Morrissey. They assert that love, in all of its wildest forms, is something worth chasing and that dancing around the room or banging on an instrument until your fingers bleed can be the best, the only, the most important thing to do.
Essential Tracks: “The Answer”, “Adore”, and “T.I.W.Y.G.”