Good Sad Happy Bad is the first Micachu and the Shapes album since Mica Levi, the musician at the core of the band, composed one of the decade’s most bone-chilling film soundtracks for Under the Skin. If you’ve seen the surrealist sci-fi work, you can’t hear the low throbs of its score without seeing Scarlett Johansson as an alien femme fatale stalking her prey in a mirrored black expanse. As Micachu, Levi writes songs from a much more playful plane, but some of that disorienting gloom still streaks across her third record with the Shapes.
Compared to Micachu and the Shapes’ 2009 debut Jewellery and 2012 follow-up Never, Good Sad Happy Bad hones in more closely on beats and language, letting melody fade as a tertiary concern. What could have been described as art pop six years ego edges ever so slightly closer to lightweight hip-hop here. There’s even a spoken word vignette called “Thinking It” that narrates the lifelong bargains we make for ourselves, like choosing to go jogging instead of partying in the hopes that maybe, someday, we’ll feel OK as we grow old.
On the sung tracks, Levi pitches her vocal delivery into a state of even deeper detachment than normal. She glances off feelings of depression on “Sad” through a faint metallic filter, sounding nearly as numb and vacant as a text-to-speech reader. The beat circles her murky words, caging her in a gentle disaffection. “It’s going to be OK,” she finally decides in a high register, sounding vaguely hopeful but unconvinced. Later, on album closer “Suffering”, she parses her own unhappiness with a resigned thread of logic: “It’s only suffering/ It keeps my conscience clean.”
Murmured, casual, and off-the-cuff, Levi’s voice finds more space than usual to play in. Bandmates Raisa Khan and Marc Pell counter her with sparse, looping bass lines, chirping synth notes, and off-kilter drum beats, while Levi’s guitar parts cut in like coils of stray wire. The Shapes’ beat work is tightest on the sedate “Oh Baby”, which sounds primed for a few verses from a likeminded rapper with its swaying drum fills and lean, lanky keys. With just Levi’s vocals, it carves out more space than it can fill, a textural marvel without much substance inside.
The album plays as though it were cut from an extended jam among the band’s three players; often, it’s hard to tell if snippets of muffled speech were picked up by a mic accidentally or laced into the mix intentionally. Those rough edges lend Good Sad Happy Bad a loose, spontaneous feel that’s communally joyful at best (like when the band works gruff, wordless vocalizations into the beat on “Unity”) and overly relaxed at worst. In the middle rests a lot of melancholy, most of it barely articulated, as in the echoing, wistful “L.A. Poison”, where Levi sing-speaks through clouds of echo along an ambling beat. The song’s mood sits securely in one place, neither complicating nor resolving itself, just wafting through until the fadeout.
Micachu and the Shapes still sound incomplete six years in, a machine with an empty space for a cog that’s gathering dust. As a document of reunion between friends, Good Sad Happy Bad feels honest enough. On its own, it hits a note too lethargic and too muted to stick the way Levi’s past work has done.
Essential Tracks: “Sad”, “L.A. Poison”, and “Suffering”