glass animals - how to be a human being
Words by Claire Wever
Press play on Glass Animals’ newest record and you’ll feel transported to tropical paradise, lost in the midst of a jungle, submerged below the surface of a crystal-blue pool. With a sound entirely of their own; each Glass Animals song is an exotic tapestry of indie synth, drum machine, African & Indian beats and smooth vocals. Catapulted into two years of world tours after their widely-loved 2014 record Zaba, vocalist Dave Bayley collected a treasure trove of anecdotes from strangers and fans he met along the way: a grieving mother, a lovably lazy stoner girlfriend, a murderous housewife, a homeless man with schizophrenia amongst others he met in cities across the world. With their new album How To Be a Human Being, released 22 August, the Oxford ensemble dig into the messy, complex diversity of the human experience as each track serves as a narrative exploring what it is to be human: to accumulate a life’s story and to tell it.
The instrumentation on How To Be a Human Being is often upbeat with contrastingly dark lyrics, reflecting elements of sadness in each character’s tale. In The Other Side of Paradise, punchy, colourful synth flows while Bayley sings “I wish you could see the wicked truth / Caught up in a rush it's killing you”, telling of a ‘hoop phenomenon’ rising basketball star adjusting poorly to fame. Life Itself, which sat triumphantly atop Sirius XM Alt Nation’s Top 18 for several weeks, starts with a sitar before catapulting into a percussion-heavy synth mix, and tells the tale of a self-proclaimed basement-dwelling “bum” who is “waking up, lost in boxes outside Tesco”. A prominent flute melody drifts through Youth, the nostalgic lament of a lost son inspired by a devastating story of a teary-eyed mother Bayley met on tour. The same flute-synth sound returns in Mama’s Gun, a bare, eerie melody that tells the tale of a housewife who hears voices and eventually makes her husband go to “Neverland”.
Bayley slips effortlessly into various characters, often blurring the lyrical lines between narration and personal stories. He sings about a girlfriend, presumably someone else’s, who “eats mayonnaise from a jar while she’s getting blazed” and uses “a cookie as a coaster”, in the undeniably smooth, reminiscent track Season 2 Episode 3. In Poplar St, he reflects: “I don’t love you anymore, she said, then ceased to be”. Here, the same confusion arises as to whether this is about his own past lover or someone else's. One track not to be ignored is Pre-made Sandwiches, a 36-second long, artificially deep a-capella criticism of the banality of modern consumerism: “People complaining about losing their minds / People standing in line and they don't even know why”. Glass Animals tie it all together with the final track, Agnes, supposedly Bayley’s favourite of the album and the only story specific to himself: a lamenting, crescendoing ballad saturated with the emotionality and sadness of a decaying relationship: “Where went that cheeky friend of mine / where went that billion dollar smile?”, adding “You're gone but you're on my mind”.
The disjointedness of the stories expressed in the album is criticized as being a downfall to How To Be a Human Being, especially following the flowy cohesiveness of their previous album Zaba, but perhaps that’s the point: the human race is muddled and manifold. Glass Animals’ sophomore album is a distinct departure from their first album but not a complete abandonment of it. How To Be a Human Being has a distinctly more concrete sound than the amorphous feel of Zaba, as Glass Animals experiment with new instruments and vocal tactics. A recurrent piano melody weaves its way through Agnes, electric guitar rifts worthy of the Red Hot Chili Peppers flux wistfully through Take A Slice and Poplar St, and the band use a drum machine and synth sounds rather than the bongos and djembes present throughout Zaba. Though the lyrics are significantly more direct, they are still open-ended. It’s intentional, as Bayley says, “I always try to leave enough space for people to make their own interpretations”.