Album Review: Lease of Life – Errors

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This piece was originally published on the 25th of March 2015 by The 405. This version has been slightly revised. As reviews go, this one is fine. It’ll do. 

In their eleven years together, Glasgow band Errors have embodied the linear progression we’ve come to expect from our artists. Each of their albums has served to move the band forward in a direction that the one prior subtly telegraphed – that they teased in one and fully explored in the next. From the hyped-up, lo-fi indie-electronica of their first album, It’s Not Something, But it is Like Whatever, came Come Down With Me‘s more assured blend of guitars and electronica, and from the eighties-tinged synths that lurked beneath Come Down With Me came the twinkling netherworld of Have Some Faith In Magic. And thus, in the world of Errors, nothing will happen that doesn’t make logical sense. And that’s fine, that’s great. We all enjoy following artists move forwards in their carefully plotted chronology, watching them grow in maturity and confidence on each successive record, and analysing how their current sound was informed by their past and how it will influence their future records. This way, we get artists that aren’t static, that are fluid and continuous, but are not so extreme that they’ll blindside us all with an unexpected, Kanye West-esque stylistic about-face. (Which is great and all, but you don’t want everyone doing it). No, time marches inexorably onwards, and Errors follow in kind.

With their fourth album Lease of Life, however, I am for the first time unconvinced that Errors are marching towards something distinctly better. Written in seclusion on the Isle of Jura in the Hebrides, this is by far the most relaxed and comfortable album Errors have recorded – perhaps a sign of confidence more than anything else. That’s not to say they’ve gotten sloppy – Lease of Life is as composed as you’d expect an Errors record to be – but that, reflecting the album’s birthplace, they’ve attempted to create a more serene and bucolic electronic pop album, one that polishes Have Some Faith in Magic‘s wonderfully lurid aesthetic. To accomplish this, however, they’ve had to remove the abrasive post-rock base that worked so well in counterpoint to their more traditional electronic proclivities. With Have Some Faith, Errors hit on something special: a multifaceted sound that was vaporous and effervescent, but also underpinned by understated but nonetheless unrelenting drones. There was always a coarseness undulating below the glistening ambient fog, and this created a positive kind of tension; there was a rough edge to the record and its palette was always varied, with an abundance of contradictory sounds converging within the record’s dense aether. So, as much as that album shimmered, it was grounded and never once elusive.

Unfortunately, Lease of Life‘s shimmer is markedly stronger, but at the expense of that grounding. Compared to their previous records, it’s noticeably cleaner and polished – conventionally ‘pretty’, I suppose. The palette of textures and tones they wrangle from their retro equipment is more vibrant and colourful and lush than ever before, and it never sounds anything less than gorgeous. And though the album clearly runs the gamut of eighties synthpop influences – from Pet Shop Boys to ABC, Simple Minds to Yazoo, Tears for Fears, to Erasure, and so on ad infinitum – Errors are not content to poorly imitate. Instead, they repurpose this sound and turn it into something distinctly their own, creating these humid, tropical panoramas in which the line between synthetic and organic sound is constantly blurred. But, for all this admittedly beautiful sheen, it’s all very transitory and bereft of tension; easy-going, easy to put in our ears, and, sadly, just as easy to forget. That’s not to say that certain songs don’t pack a punch: ‘Lease of Life’ is the best New Order song in years; ‘New Winged Fire’ features a cascading synth that moves so fast, and in so many directions, that it’s impossible to get a handle on and becomes weirdly claustrophobic; and ‘Genuflection’ is an ecstatic synth-pop epic of the ‘Midnight City’ variety, complete with a saxophone-soaked outro that has a coarseness vaguely reminiscent of a Colin Setson joint. Where the rest of the album is concerned, however, there’s rarely enough going on behind the surface gloss that outright demands your attention, or ensures the majority of the album doesn’t float in one ear and out the other.

More problematic, though, are Errors’ forays into a more conventional mode of synth-pop. First, however, some context. Part of Errors’ linear trajectory has involved their increasingly liberal use of vocals. I mean, where It’s Not Something… was entirely instrumental and Come Down With Me featured only the vaguest smatterings of the human voice, Stephen Livingstone’s vastly increased vocal presence reverberated around the iridescent fog of Have Some Faith in Magic. Granted, he was hardly belting out numbers like Aretha Franklin because, let’s be honest, he’s not that great a singer. But he never had to be. Livingstone’s increased presence was not intended to represent some direct form of communication, instead his voice functioned as another layer of sound. He was often buried so low in the mix as to be fairly indecipherable while also providing both a further sense of depth and and a necessary human element to Errors’ synthetic soundscapes. Lease of Life sees the band continuing on both their vocal-liberal trajectory and their obfuscation of Livingstone’s voice. Even though it’s more conspicuous and confident than ever, it still sounds as if he’s competing for attention, struggling within the music rather than floating above it – even when at his voice is at its clearest, as it is on ‘Genuflection’. This way of operating is clearly something with which Errors have grown more comfortable, and it’s no surprise that the best tracks on Lease of Life are those that make use of Livingstone’s reverb-drenched incantations.

But Lease of Life also sees the band seeking to extend their use of the human voice beyond the realms of comfort. Though seven of the album’s nine tracks include vocals, Livingston does not appear on all of them. For the first time on an Errors album, guest vocalists have been drafted in: Cecilia Stamp and Magic Eye’s Bek Oliva, who feature on the tracks ‘Slow Rotor’ (on which Livingstone also appears), ‘Dull Care’ and ‘Putman Caraibe’. Behind this decision one imagines was the desire to bring a texture or a quality that eluded Livingstone, to add something new to the mix in a similar fashion to their 2012 mini-album New Relics. As admirable as that may be in principle, however, in effect it only serves to detract from the music. Neither Bek nor Stamp is a particularly strong singer, but, as we’ve seen with Livingstone, that’s not a necessity. But where Livingstone’s vocals are used to provide depth, Bek and Stamp have been drafted in to focus and drive the most overtly ‘synth-pop songs Errors have recorded. Their nonchalant voices are foregrounded within a cleaner mix, and this isn’t just ill-befitting of their voices, but the generally energetic instrumentals over which they sing. Through no fault of their own, Bek and Stamp suck out all the energy out of their songs, which end up sounding uncomfortably languid and, in the case of ‘Dull Care’ and ‘Putman Caraibe’, ever so slightly dreary.

So, despite containing some good work, Lease of Life largely fails in positively building on what came before. That’s not to say they’ve regressed; the album’s pristine sound clearly marks a progression from Have Some Faith in Magic‘s woozy smog. No, Errors are still clearly doing their own thing, leisurely strolling along a path that is theirs and theirs alone, and that’s definitely something to be admired. But, considering the very high standards Errors have set until this point, I cannot help but consider this current step as something of a disappointment. Though undoubtedly a handsome package, the experience of Lease of Life as a whole feels somewhat insubstantial; its impact is elusive while any real staying power is negligible at best. It’s the Jai Courtney of albums. And if you have no idea who Jai Courtney is, well, that’s basically my point.

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