We often take the arrival of new music for granted. There is an unspoken understanding that a person (or perhaps, a group of them) spent some time in another city, deep within a forest, sequestered to a coast where it is warm or a farm where it is freezing, and staring out at the moon one unadulterated evening, suddenly came up with the answer. It’s a sentiment particularly ascribed to astute lyricists, those ones where it seems perfect phrases simply roll out of them, that a flash of inspiration is all that’s needed for the next addition to the Canon of art rock epics. There are many reasons to adore ‘Say Yes To Life’, the careening closer to Gang Of Youths’ audaciously brilliant second record, but its inherent insecurity is what makes it stick, long after the reverb stops ringing in your ears.
On their debut, the band became so good at crafting interpersonal narratives into hooks that a song about frontman David Leaupepe’s attempted suicide was able to become a mainstream and critical hit. ‘Say Yes To Life’, which picks up from the resolution of ‘Magnolia’ and runs it in reverse, subscribes to no such expectations. It’s alternately loud, soft, messy, neat, well-constructed and completely shambolic. It’s a train chugging on rhythm, the rhythm of a band well-oiled enough to contain the enormity of Leaupepe’s lyrics without constraining them, speeding towards precarious bridges that in some instances may not even be fully finished yet. It is not something we can take for granted, because as each section comes into view, it becomes clear that this ride has not been easy.
It may seem obvious now, but in 2013, when Gang Of Youths first dropped onto our radar, it was not a foregone conclusion that a band raised on religion, punk rock and existential philosophy would be a big hit in Australia. Though we’ve always had a penchant for the mood and grandiose (see: INXS ‘Never Tear Us Apart’, Silverchair’s ‘Emotion Sickness’), there’s an invisible line where excellent rock bands become parodies. With a nose for irony, or perhaps in spite of it, the band’s decision to double down on ornate lyricism, stunning orchestration and even the length of their release (a double album as a follow-up) demonstrates that this is a line about as relevant as CD sales. ‘Say Yes To Life’, in all its madness, embodies the entire album’s scope in the space of a song. It changes tempo constantly, is adorned on all sides by tremolo strings, glockenspiels and percussion and issues forth positive proclamations faster than a Sunday sermon:
‘We’re like halfway through the halftime show/Do not let this one end/Before you emerge as the winner.’
‘You want to be absolved tonight/I’ve heard what you’re saying/It’s OK not to be so alright.’
In as much as ‘Say Yes To Life’ is a directive to the listener, it’s also one for the band. More than anywhere else on the album – perhaps aside from Leaupepe’s string arrangement interludes which, at one point, inerpolats a Guns N Roses guitar solo – the track gives permission to the band to revel in the uncertainty of its own creation. It’s beautifully produced, but it still manages to sound like the a curious, subconscious sensation, like dancing drunk at a wedding with all your friends and feeling your subconscious click off, if only for a few minutes. Leaupepe is a keenly aware of how to dramatically escalate a piece of music, it’s partly what made The Positions such a cathartic listen. ‘Say Yes To Life’ is a different beast, continuing onto new climes well after its reached its natural peak. During its tearjerking finale, it pulls the rug from under the listener not once, but twice, in the space of thirty seconds.
We should not take the new music for granted. It works too hard for that.