Artist: Los Campesinos!
Album: Sick Scenes
Audience: Old fans looking for their next hit; New fans that want to start with the best.
Bottom Line: It’s my personal favorite Los Campesinos! album. Worth a listen for sure.
Stand Out Songs: A Slow Slow Death, I Broke Up in Amarante, Got Stendahl’s (but only for the guitar solo at 3:09),
The Tortured Artist
The double standard of the depressed artist is getting old, but Los Campesinos! manages to keep it relevant in their new release. Is the songwriter really too depressed to be productive as he claims? Or are they putting out another album, coping well enough to coordinate a major record release? As fans, we expect performers to provide us with cathartic release, to dig down into the depths of their own pain and offer it up for our consumption. Simultaneously, we expect them to be put together enough to perform shows, choreograph set-lists, and keep the audience entertained. I like to think that more mature fanbases are capable of gracefully accepting the performer’s shift from self-destructive depressed artist into healthy, optimistic performer or else let the band move on and dissolve. This dichotomy leaves bands like Los Campesinos! (who have constructed an identity around walking that line) out of place in the pantheon of well-established bands.
Just to use some personal examples, John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats has been making the shift from tortured artist to healthy dad and it shows in his music. His music has become stylistically angry and dark but also more clearly fictional. John Darnielle the artist has become clearly distinct from John Darnielle the person. On the other hand, we have bands like My Chemical Romance (to name a near-infamous example of amicable band break-ups) where the band parted ways once they recognized that the demands of the band were unhealthy for the members, and individuals were growing apart as they grew up. The big question here is: What does this mean for a veteran set of performers like Los Campesinos! who make their living walking that line between tortured artist and functional human being? Six albums in, are they still on the tightrope or have they matured? I think they’ve matured, but at first listen, you might not be able to tell from their music. I think they’ve taken what we like to think makes tortured artists special and flipped the stereotype on its head, drawing on all the same emotions in filtered nostalgia rather than brute honesty.
Sick Scenes: Nostalgia Two Ways
The majority of Sick Scenes focuses on the way that nostalgia operates as both lifeline and anchor to the morbidly depressed narrator. In an odd sense, nostalgia offers the depressed artist a point of stability in an otherwise aimless trajectory. It’s become cliché to suggest that bands like Los Campesinos! find it better to burn out than fade away. The problem is, after 6 albums, their time to burn out is long gone. So instead, they turn to nostalgia. It seems to be the perfect way for the narrator two two things at once. First, explicitly address the way that depressed artists are held to a double standard of crippling sadness and up-beat entertainment. Second, it lets the band explore all the emotions present in the kind of cathartic descriptions of depression that their fans love but without the immediacy and intensity of direct confession.
Neither of these interpretations is necessarily a stretch of the imagination. The lyrics of the album do most of the work for the listener in connecting the dots. “I Broke Up in Amarante” lets the band explore, in a more direct way, the double-standard of the tortured artist. The song ends with a unifying refrain, “It seems unfair / It seems unfair to be a rotten horn of plenty” and “It seems unfair to try your best but feel the worst.” Lyrics like these are an explicit call-out for the audience members lamenting the more frenetic days of Hold On Now, Youngster and Romance is Boring. Sure, the highs were higher, but the cost was just too great to keep paying for this long. Six albums later and it’s time to hang up the clichés and move on. “5 Flucloxacillin” even says “thirty-one and depression is a young man’s game.” It’s those kinds of direct admonishments that characterize the explicit statements of this album. It’s clear that Gareth is nostalgic for his days as a young man, but he’s also making a clear statement to his fans. Just because someone’s nostalgic for the past doesn’t mean they’re eager to repeat it.
On the other hand, the feeling of nostalgia is levereaged in a less explicit way to set the tone for Sick Scenes. On “A Slow, Slow Death” Gareth says, “some days I struggle to move in elephant shoes, unwilling commuter / anxiety in my chest, heart under duress, taps out of sharpshooter / preoccupied for days by nostalgia ways, I hated the first time.” It’s like he’s already saying “yes, depression sucks the first time around, but dammit if I don’t feel nostalgic for that creativity.” The cliché of the tortured genius/tortured artist is a dangerous one, but Gareth seems to express the dirty little secret of recovered artists: it might have sucked the first time around, but you can’t help but catch yourself feeling nostalgic for those times every once in a while. This feeling is exactly what he seems to be constructing in the album. He might be happy to have come out on the other side breathing, but that doesn’t mean those old emotions aren’t still fueling the songs he writes. The misplaced nostalgia for worse times that Gareth is describing is exactly the emotional “key” that this album plays in. It lets the audience feel the way that the artists felt without anyone having to go back and re-live it. This seems to reach its peak on “For Whom the Belly Tolls” with the lyrics “May the way that I go be regrettable, gruesome / In exchange for one thing: ‘I beg do not take me today’ / Babbling ‘please let me stay.’” Gareth comes as close as he can to just saying outright that he’s past his depression, he’s come through it intact.
Los Campesinos! manages, on Sick Scenes to use nostalgia as a way to explicitly reference the way artists mature (pointing out that they feel nostalgic for the old times, but don’t want to go back) and to set the perfect emotional key for the new album. Los Campesinos! manages to walk the line between tortured artist and mature performer with ease, all through nostalgic references to the past and some of the most direct band-audience address they’ve ever recorded.
Sick Scenes is an album that’ll please old fans to no end: it has the same feeling of frantic angst and all the same dark compositions that they expect, but in an oddly retrospective perspective. It’s an album that doesn’t invite the audience to become aware of themselves as listeners in the moment, but one that somehow gives the listener the emotional distance to handle a full listen-through without the usual malaise that heavy albums inspire. Gareth Campesinos!’s (or however one is supposed to stylize his name) wordplay is as amazing as ever, the references equally stunning as they were on No Blues. It’s an album that blends lyrical and content-directed exploration against a backdrop of musical familiarity.