Photo illustration by Renee Klahr/NPR/Courtesy of the artists
When the British band Squid released the single “Narrator” in January, everything about it felt like a dare. The song’s sprawling length — 8:29 — is posted on the cover art, scrambling expectations and heralding greater ambitions from a group best known at that point for a frenzied punk tune, “Houseplants.” “Narrator” traps that same energy within a tight Krautrock-ish groove, and when that wears out, the song coasts onwards with two spoken-word parts that illustrate feeling caught in the gravity of a self-absorbed person, the kind who lives as though they’re the main character and everyone else is just a walk-on. It’s a weird but effective set of contrasts — wild but controlled, artsy but focused on basic physical response, berserk emotion colliding with detached erudition. In other words, it’s a song designed to make you ask, “What is this?”
Music genre names can be silly, annoying and reductive, but you realize their stubborn value when there’s a new subgenre emerging and no one has given it a name yet. Talking around it is awkward: “Uh, I’m really into these U.K. bands that kinda talk-sing over post-punk music, and sometimes it’s more like post-rock?” But there is something happening in the United Kingdom and Ireland, a cohort of very good bands who meet this vague, wordy description — Squid, Dry Cleaning, Shame, Courting, Sleaford Mods, Yard Act, The Cool Greenhouse, Home Counties, Billy Nomates, Legss, Fontaines D.C., Working Men’s Club and Black Country, New Road among them. When these artists began popping up around 2018, what they shared read as coincidence, if anything. Today, the wave of like-minded new bands from this part of the world is approaching something like critical mass, and its leading lights have begun releasing some of the most exciting debut albums and EPs so far this year. Whatever is happening, it’s hard to ignore.
But what to call it? It’s odd that the issue hasn’t already been decided by the British music press, who famously loves to coin genre names. And for Americans to chime in first feels a touch clueless and presumptuous, like insisting that you get to name your neighbors’ newborn baby. Some writers and outlets have simply defaulted to “post-punk,” and while this music certainly belongs in a family line going back to early ’80s, labeling it as such doesn’t do quite enough to describe the style’s resurgence in this moment, or how the musicians have internalized more recent musical and cultural trends.
For one thing, there’s no getting around how much of this music is a direct response to the social dynamics of post-Brexit England, whether it’s written into the background of the emotional drama of repressed lust in Dry Cleaning’s “Strong Feelings” or manifests as a brutal caricature of a well-to-do pro-leave voter in Yard Act’s “Fixer Upper.” The politics aren’t always foregrounded, but there’s an unmistakable feeling of shame, disappointment and pessimism about Britain’s future permeating all of this music. Ned Green of Legss puts it most directly in the song “On Killing a Swan Blues,” saying, “If I was an American, my experiences, they would have shaped me / Because I am British, they only make me tired.”
Another complication is that speak-song has its own long history in indie and alternative music, going all the way back to The Velvet Underground’s “The Gift” in the late ’60s, and including songs by artists such as Sonic Youth, Slint, The Fall, King Missile, Black Box Recorder, The Nails, Cake, Art Brut, and Arab Strap along the way. Hip-hop, of course, factors in as well, and it sounds like many of these newer bands have at least casually absorbed a lot of trap and drill, or had their influence filtered through white British artists such as The Streets and Kate Tempest who are situated closer to rap.
Which is all to say, this music is not without precedent, but it’s thrilling to see so much of it burst forth at once, a few dozen artists from the same region cohering into a sudden and identifiable phenomenon. And while a few of them — Courting, The Cool Greenhouse and Yard Act especially — evoke Franz Ferdinand crashing together with spoken-word soliloquies, the most intriguing artists in this scene have landed on something more distinctive.
The septet Black Country, New Road’s February debut, For the First Time, has a sound rooted in the cinematic aesthetics of post-rock, with songs like “Science Fair” and “Track X” that gradually build to ornate climaxes augmented with woodwinds and violin. Guitarist and vocalist Isaac Wood delivers his words with inflections that can turn from droll to maudlin on a dime. It’s a style well-suited to his writing, which largely fixates on disappointment and insecurity and is full of unromantic contemporary details, referencing micro-influencers, PR teams, online forum threads, UE Booms and NutriBullets.
Black Country, New Road’s music feels emotionally fraught, but some of the most powerful moments on the album are essentially dark punchlines, like when Wood bellows, “I’m more than adequate! Leave my daddy’s job out of this!” in a theatrically anguished tone at the end of “Sunglasses.” The cringe humor sprinkled throughout For the First Time is funny, but it gestures toward an unspoken feeling that every aspect of modern life is at least a little embarrassing.
Dry Cleaning vocalist Florence Shaw pushes a similar tone to a disaffected extreme on the band’s debut, New Long Leg, which dropped in April to wide acclaim, including a Best New Music designation from Pitchfork. Shaw’s dry deadpan makes her sound alternately bored and mortified by her surroundings, as though every other line were sung with an eye roll. Her lyrics often outline suppressed emotions, particularly anger: In one memorable bit on “Leafy” she offers the advice, “Never talk about your ex / Never, never, never never slag them off / Because then they know,” suggesting that once someone is out of your life, letting on that you still think about them — doesn’t matter how — is the worst self-own imaginable. Shaw keeps her motives ambiguous, so we’re left to wonder whether the repression she’s exploring is stiff-upper-lip Britishness, the hazards of moving through the world as a woman, or perhaps both.
In place of overt lust and action, New Long Leg is packed with references to food: old sandwiches, uneaten sausages, Twix, chips, shared sundaes, sushi, cheap chocolate mousse, an individual cream bun, “crappy crazy pizzas,” green food, brown food, a hot dog thought about for hours. The music constantly mutates behind the vocals, always accelerating forwards while Shaw stubbornly stays in one gear, like someone sullenly staring out the passenger-side window of a vehicle careening down a highway, nowhere near its destination.
Just as Dry Cleaning one-up Black Country, New Road’s obsession with embarrassment, Squid goes much further with a fixation on velocity. The band’s debut, Bright Green Field, out this week, is largely extended groove-based songs that have a manic twitchiness even in their lulls, and inevitably end in screaming, blaring catharsis. Ollie Judge, Squid’s lead vocalist and drummer, often sounds like a more unhinged and bug-eyed version of LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy (and that goes for Murphy’s drumming as well as his singing).
Judge speak-sings though a good chunk of the record, but he’s most interesting at top volume. Part of that is contextual: So few indie rock bands have leaned this hard on screaming in the past decade that his unrestrained vocal style hits much harder now than it might have in the ’80s or ’90s. Still, it’s a little surprising to learn that Judge is also holding down the band’s tight pocket rhythms; sight unseen, you’d more easily picture him throwing his body around the stage like a madman.
The post-punk era echoing anew makes a lot of sense in this moment. If the original post-punk bands of the early 1980s grew from the disillusionment and alienation of Margaret Thatcher’s austere government and The Troubles, it’s only logical that a similar set of aesthetics would be useful in responding to the cultural identity crisis brought on by Brexit. The combination of jagged, jerky music and wry monologues simultaneously express a need for exorcising raw anger as well as working through more nuanced anxieties. And though Squid may be the most extreme of this new crop of bands, if there’s anything uniting them all beyond the superficial element of spoken-word vocals, it’s an emphasis on the physicality of rock music. The energy of these songs feels startling in the context of the past 10 to 15 years of indie rock, many corners of which have receded into a low-energy malaise of gentle depression and an internalized suspicion that rock might have run its course.
For all the pessimism in the lyrics, these bands all sound like people who truly believe in the old-fashioned thrill of people playing in a room together and feeding off the energy of an audience. The songs are obviously built to bring drama and urgency to a stage, and to foster a bond in the moment between band and audience. These studio recordings are all strong, but they also feel like circuits that will only be complete when the bands can get back in clubs. You could call it pre-pandemic music waiting to fully exist in a post-pandemic world.