Gang of Youths – Angel in Realtime
Indie Rock | Baroque Pop
As you get older it seems like those new music discoveries that make you sit up and say “where has this band been all my life!?” get rarer and rarer. But if anything, that just makes the few that remain feel all the more special. A dear friend recommended Gang of Youths to me a few years back, and to my shame it was only last year that I finally dived into Go Farther In Lightness. Right away I was hooked. The thoughtful lyricism, and the candid stories of overcoming hardship contained within, finding balance between erudition and worldly wisdom alongside a sense of brash charismatic bravado. The kind of anthemic sing-along choruses that just ignite a fire in your veins and make you hair stand on end. There’s something so uplifting and life affirming about this band’s music. Not in a traditional “everything is vibrant and beautiful” fashion, more in a “the world is fucked, your life is a mess, so you should give as good as you get and grab on tight to whatever joy comes your way” kind of approach. There’s something about that brazen defiance in the face of adversity that just wins your heart.
With all that in mind, their new record Angel in Realtime quickly became of of my most anticipated releases of 2022. But while it has its moments that will stand tall as some of their best work, the album as a whole frustratingly teeters on the edge of greatness. There’s just a few too many tiny hiccups that all add up to hold the project back, which it pains me to admit as there’s also so much that the band get right here. Lyrically it centres on the life, death and legacy of frontman David Le’aupepe’s father. Both a loving eulogy, and an exploration of all the life-long secrets that unravelled in his wake; coping with revelations about his past, his identity and his secret other family coming to light alongside mourning his passing.
It’s a lyrical foundation that is as unique as it is visceral. A melting pot of grief, anger, loss, confusion and uncertainty, all laid out in an upfront and sincere way. I think you see it best in ‘Tend The Garden’ where Dave takes on the perspective of his father, reflecting on the difficult choices that he made (“I hope that one day if they find my sons, They’ll tell ’em everything that I’ve become, And I will hold it ’til my dying breath, When I tend the garden, I will think of them“). The band have a superb track record of sharing difficult topics in a verbose fashion and somehow making it work – if anything it’s a key part of their charm – but there are a few instances here where they bite off more than they can chew. I find myself in two minds about ‘Brothers’; the sparse piano balladry and intimate dive into Dave’s family history makes it the most strikingly personal moment on an already very personal album. However, some of the lyrics can feel dry and matter-of-fact, lacking flow and leading the track to stumble over its words somewhat (“Thought he was born in 1948, But was born a whole decade before, Thought he was brought up in New Zealand, But he was born and brought up in Samoa“).
While Go Farther In Lightness was life affirming through defiance rather than vibrancy, musically Angel in Realtime definitely adds a lot of the latter into the mix also. Lightness grappled with Springsteenian grit and elegant classical orchestration, and while both are still present in Realtime the new record paints with a far broader and warmer sonic palette. Synths have a far greater presence and the record draws a lot of influence from traditional pacific island music. Alongside the electrifying indie rock anthems like ‘In The Wake Of Your Leave’ and ‘The Angel Of 8th Ave.’, we also find the shimmering synths and funky groove of ‘Tend The Garden’, which later shifts into golden 70s R&B territory in its closing moments. The frenetic drum patterns on tracks like ‘The Man Himself’ inject a lot of energy into the mix, and the Maori choral elements that permeate the entirety of the record (though stand most prominently on the interlude on ‘Spirit Boy’) are a fitting homage to Dave’s Samoan heritage.
There are a few moments though where the grit of old feels a bit too lacking. ‘The Kingdom Is Within You’ and ‘Forbearance’ feel far too polished, with the percussion here coming off too much like a dance track and losing a lot of the personal touch in the process. Ultimately Angel in Realtime is a frustratingly inconsistent record, with a couple of tracks falling behind just enough to sadly keep it from being the album-of-the-year contender I expected it to be. But when you catch those glorious moments where the band are firing on all cylinders, you get a real glimpse of Gang of Youths’ true brilliance.