Glass Animals Take Autobiographical Turn on Infectious ‘Dreamland’
London’s Glass Animals balance broad pop appeal with a niche aesthetic signature. Their music abounds with psychedelic undertones and takes whimsical liberties, yet consistently keeps the listener hooked with infectious melodies. The band’s breakthrough single, “Gooey,” from their 2014 debut album “Zaba,” became a viral streaming sensation, and catapulted the band to an early stardom that they have managed to retain. Singer Dave Bayley specifically avoided autobiographical content until the final track, “Agnes” on the band’s 2016 followup, “How to Be a Human Being,” which found him opening up about a friend’s suicide. This marked a turning point for Glass Animals, and ushered in a surge of creativity, as Bayley took up unabashedly personal subject matter. The band’s latest album, “Dreamland,” is a reflective indulgence that explores broad topics concerning nostalgia, relationships, and identity, as Bayley begins with his earliest memories, and runs through pivotal moments of his life. The sonics capture a sense of the surreal, but return reliably to instantaneous tunes. The band’s future was uncertain after an accident in 2018 left drummer Joe Seaward with a fractured skull, but the latest record finds them back in action and newly ambitious.
The titular track lives up to its name, hazy and nebulous, full of evasive textures and sluggish vocals. Bayley’s first musical memory is of the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds,” and the band begins with a lullaby motif that nods to that album. There is a grandeur and elegance that evokes the spirit of Brian Wilson, as well as an immediate Animal Collective feeling. When Bayley protests, “You’ve had too much of the digital love,” it rings like an overdue statement of the times. There is plenty of openly meta detail, concluding in the admission, “So you go make an album and call it ‘Dreamland,’”
It’s “Tangerine” upon which the band really kicks off, turning the atmospherics of the opener into pop punch. It’s also, however, the first instance of the album’s largest grievance. Bayley simply tries too hard, donning a voice that is too cutesy to take seriously, and exacerbating this with lyrics like “Please please, tangerine.” Yet, there is plenty of depth behind these silly phrases, as Bayley calls to an acquaintance who has changed over time, invoking a shadow of the person’s former self. With a colorful blend of wiggling synths, cartoony samples, and expressive sighs and flourishes, there are plenty of sonics to enjoy. “Hot Sugar” finds Bayley singing as if he thinks he is more soulful than he actually is, with lines like “Hot sugar in the afternoon.” In spite of this, the song presents the band’s unique balance of idiosyncrasy and pop appeal in all its panoramic scale. There is a psychedelic feel, with the vocals morphing up at just the right moments, and an overall playful sound that peaks when a beat change enhances everything already pleasant, and gives a particular Adult Swim feel to the already camp sound.
Having waited this long to get autobiographical, Bayley goes all out, interspersing the songs with personal footage on several interludes, each titled as a variation of “Home Movie,” which give context and authenticity to the tunes among them. “Space Ghost Coast to Coast” is undeniably catchy, with an insistent chorus, and the circus sonics teased beforehand now streamlined to optimal effect. Bayley begins describing a prison visit in elegantly opaque language, but soon devolves into lines like “Playin’ too much of that GTA,” delivered without a trace of irony in his voice. Helium choirs, change machines, and a freeness of structure are almost enough to distract from this annoyance.
Bayley overdoes his vocal affectations even more on single “Tokyo Drifting,” and you can hear the contained enthusiasm in his overly stylized singing. In this case, it works, as he sings of disco exhaustion from the perspective of an exaggerated alter ego, Wavey Davey. Moreover, this turns out to be the album’s most exciting moment yet. There’s a whimsical pause, and a reemergence of music, with “Eleanor Rigby” brass. The beat gradually acquires a more hip-hop frame, and rapper Denzel Curry enters for a short, but spirited verse that adds volumes. With such stunts as meticulously faithful covers of songs by the Bad Brains and Rage Against the Machine, alongside albums that don’t seem to compromise any street cred or grit, Curry is one of the most dynamic new voices in hip-hop, and his feature here is a highlight. Having written and produced for such artists as 6lack, Khalid, and Wale, Bayley is not a stranger to hip-hop, and he manages to pull off the risky dip into this sonic territory.
There is a storybook feel to the album, coming out especially on more whimsical, spacious tracks like “Melon and the Coconut,” which expands and contracts hypnotically, and climaxes with a very brief guitar. The band really shines on “Your Love (Déjà Vu),” a well-chosen single that Bayley has described as a “conflicted booty-call anthem” about being “addicted to the chaos” of a dysfunctional relationship. The band’s pop instincts are at their most pointed, with Bayley sounding especially like Adam Levine. With an inviting vocal melody and beat, the song is a reminder that Glass Animals is, after all, a pop band at heart.
“Waterfalls Coming Out of Your Mouth” strikes a balance between the band’s effortless infectiousness and their arty inclinations. If only Bayley would stop contorting his voice and singing lines like “Thank you, Scooby Doo,” this could be perfect. At any rate, he makes up for it with lyrics like “raspberry soda hair” that suit the colorful, circus instrumentation. On “It’s So Incredibly Loud,” Bayley takes a step left, with a winding melody until he gets too pop-soul once again. He takes on new emotional depths, singing about the silence after an unwelcome truth. By the end, he is soaring, at his most transcendent, having wandered into a different sonic realm altogether.
Bayley ventures into more somber subject matter yet on “Domestic Bliss,” which recounts an instance of domestic violence. Unfortunately, he cheapens the whole display by reverting to his gimmicky vocal affectations in a way that can seem tonedeaf. On tracks that allow for a little more levity, he sounds more in his element, for instance on “Heat Waves,” the album’s fourth single. The song is actually deceptively lighthearted, with lyrics that broadly describe an embrace of vulnerability. Bayley sings about sacrificing one’s personality to please a partner. There are more hip-hop reference points, with pitched-down vocals, as well as more Maroon 5-style vocals, and another infectious chorus. The melodic motifs that run through the album find new purpose and potency. The band has a knack for penning effective singles, and this is a case in point. After this peak, “Helium” pans out, with Bayley at his vaguest and coincidentally his most poetic. After a suspiciously familiar guitar line that echoes the Red Hot Chili Peppers, there is a return to the ambiance that began the album, dissolving into footage of childhood memories, marking a final descent into the titular “Dreamland.”
“Dreamland” is altogether a great pop album. From beginning to end, the band drift in and out of an elusive sonic space, with the same chords making their way subtly into different songs. As Bayley escapes into his “dreamland,” the recurring sounds ring like a gentle pull back toward reality, and make for an impressively cohesive listen. Along the way, the band runs through one catchy tune after another. Bayley has surefire pop instincts that prove themselves repeatedly. His presentation, however, can be hokey. You can hear him putting on his idea of a trendy singing voice, and it can sound inauthentic. Moreover, his overly cutesy lyrics can be cloying. Apart from this, the record is quite flawless. Glass Animals manage to craft punchy, infectious tracks from a colorful sonic palette. They take freedoms that could easily devolve into chaos in less skilled hands. Yet, they always return to memorable hooks. Bayley’s foray into autobiographical songwriting is an overall success, making for the band’s most ambitious album yet.
“Dreamland” is available Aug. 7 on Apple Music.