Album art courtesy of the Wombats
Review by Caroline Moses
The new Wombats album, Beautiful People Will Ruin Your Life, is their first since 2015, and to a certain extent continues their trend towards a more heavily produced sound. Some of the songs, however, especially farther down the tracklist, harken back to their first, more rough-hewn album A Guide to Love, Loss, and Desperation. Like their previous three albums, the Wombats offer a look at themes of hedonism, the pitfalls of love, and mental illness.
These last two themes are almost made equivalent in the lyrics on this record; every song seems to have something to say about how love is dangerous, intoxicating, and maddening. But it’s not just that love makes you crazy for the Wombats – crazy also makes you love. This is clearest in the song “Turn,” which has as a refrain “maybe it’s the crazy that I’d miss” and makes frequent use of imagery of delusion and unpredictable behavior, saying that it is this behavior that attracts the narrator to his love interest: “I like the way you turn me inside and out/I like the way your brain works." But the whole record, not just “Turn," tells the story of a fated romance between two disaster-bound souls, evident even in the album’s title; there is an inevitable blow-up coming for these two, even if it doesn’t feature on the record.
This sense of hopelessness is also important to the record. The single from the album, “Lemon to a Knife Fight,” demonstrates this most clearly in that the title and refrain suggest that the narrator has put himself in a situation that he cannot get out of, and further lyrics underscore that this was a willing decision: “I’ve clawed my way out of here before but I keep on coming back.” And unlike many songs about the “bad lover” dynamic, he does not return because he hopes that she’s changed or that he can change her, but because this drama and pain is what he wanted in the first place. This recalls a song from their earlier album This Modern Glitch, “Our Perfect Disease," but unlike that song which mostly expresses regret, the mood in “Lemon to a Knife Fight” is one of total surrender. This idea resurfaces throughout the record, in “Black Flamingo” where the chorus repeats, “I want to love you but it hurts,” in “Ice Cream” when he asks “am I right where you want me/melting like an ice cream in the sun?” and perhaps most graphically in “White Eyes” with the phrase “it’s hard to keep my chin up when my guts are lying on the floor.” With these and other moments, the album combines the archetypal “femme-fatale” imagery with something closer to a deep masochism. This is not portrayed as the downfall of a usually dominant character, but something actually sought out.
Going along with all this pain and fighting is a lot of alcohol apparently, as getting so drunk as to be sick or blacked-out also features all through the album. Sometimes this seems more innocuous (“I want to get college-girl drunk tonight”) and sometimes it feels sinister even from the narrator’s perspective (“If you remember this tomorrow then you’re doing it wrong” in the song “Lethal Combination).
The motivation behind this self-destruction gets elaborated a little bit in the middle of the record on the songs “Out of My Head” and “I Only Wear Black,” which take a break from the romantic narrative to focus on the narrator’s internal state. In “Out of My Head,” the mood is mostly a dissociative one, as this character finds himself isolated, confused, and pleadingly singing, “I want to come back to me.” This is the only song where “losing [his] mind” seems to disturb the narrator, as opposed to enticing him.
The following track, “I Only Wear Black,” picks up on similar themes of mental gloom and isolation, but its musical sound is more tongue-in-cheek, with the vocal style resembling a Julian Casablancas impression that occasionally veers into Morrissey. This is not meant as insult – it’s pretty fun to listen to, especially when the music is punctuated by silly little claps. Unlike in “Out of My Head,” the narrator, whether it’s singer Matthew Murphy or some character, seems to enjoy his dark condition, preferring to see it as a way of life, as opposed to a condition that he can or needs to change.
Overall, Beautiful People Will Ruin Your Life presents a full story, or at least the beginning of a story that makes it pretty easy to guess the ending (not so happy). It does what the Wombats have always done best – it paints a bright neon picture of a dark, sad life, full of substance abuse, toxic relationships, and existential misery. The punchy riffs belie harder punches in the lyrics. But for my money, and at the risk of sounding old, the real anxiety-attack-in-the-club vibe is their 2011 output, This Modern Glitch. If nothing else, use Beautiful People as an excuse to revisit that record.