Bob Waters reviews Have A Nice Life’s new album
There’s a new Have A Nice Life album out, so ready yourself for some crushing misery. The American duo of Dan Barrett and Tim Macuga have released just their third album in 11 years. Such sporadic releases have led to great hunger among their rabid cult following, who are desperate for their woes to be put to music. Who are the directors of doom they put this task on? There is a stark contrast between Dan and Tim the musicians and Dan and Tim the men. Googling Barrett’s name will not return the hooded, cavern dwelling shadow demon you might expect – only an smiling, slightly nerdy bald guy. And therein lies a big part of their appeal. As they present the outlet for their worst emotions, listeners can do the same vicariously through a relatable, everyman figure.
Those who have spent years struggling to categorise HANL (is it post-rock? Shoegaze? Post-industrial doomgaze? I give up) will be relieved to hear that the boys have settled. This is a post-punk record. A true gothic throwback to the late 70s/early 80s with modern flourishes. Barret even indulges in a catchy vocal hook with some silky smooth oohs on the opening title track. This is about as close as you’re getting to HANL going pop. There’s still a distinctive edge though, the first major left turn coming as ‘Dracula Bells’ devolves into a corridor of shouting voices. It’s an disorientating sonic barrage complete with a haunted house style instrumental.
As they present the outlet for their worst emotions, listeners can do the same vicariously through a relatable, everyman figure
The opening riff to ‘Trespassers W’ had me thinking I was about to hear the most goth cover of ‘Teenage Kicks’ of all time. In another life they could have been a decent power pop band. Joy Division connections are also unavoidable here – the vague influence was always there but now it’s explicit. Barrett has never been much of a technical singer, and there are times where it’s more apparent – the outro to ‘Science Beat’ for one. However, his effectiveness as a vocalist comes from the emotional weight he is able to convey. His authenticity always shines through.
There’s a change as we reach track five, a transition into less immediate more experimental material. We’ve snuck away from the hectic punk band playing in the cave entrance and are spelunking deeper into an unknown blackness, filled with ghostly synth pads. This shift is a bit jarring, with such a sudden contrast between the energetic previous track and the space like ambience. This is where the benefit of physical media comes into play. The act of turning the vinyl record over and being met with this new world would be a much better experience than listening on streaming with the track following immediately. Even the act itself of flipping the record seems to fit, with side B being the dark alternate hell-scape hidden on side A’s underbelly.
Joy Division connections are also unavoidable here – the vague influence was always there but now it’s explicit
The last two tracks are throwbacks to their debut Deathconsciousness, imbuing the same isolated sense of hopelessness. They’re bleak and slow, everything is taken over by the distortion like sinking into a lo-fi tar pit. This is not surprising given old recordings these songs have been around since 2008, appearing on the compilation album Voids.
Taking the record as a whole, Sea of Worry lacks grandiosity. It won’t inspire an army of depressed, early 20s, terminally online people like Deathconsciousness did. There never could be a Deathconsciousness 2.0, and those expecting one will inevitably be left disappointed. Though the music isn’t so grandiose, lyrically it does not shy away from big questions. There is religious imagery throughout – should a Christian god be worshiped or feared? Why is the pull of sin so tempting? If god is love then why are we all damned? These themes come to a climax on ‘Destinos’. The 13 minute final track includes a recording of a near complete lecture on the theology of hell, with a despairing Barret wailing in support. As clumsy as this sounds, it works. It’s beautifully gloomy. However, there is a very high bar for closers that HANL have set themselves, and ‘Earthmover’ this ain’t. Perhaps it’s unfair to hold them to such high standards, but in fact the original version of ‘Destinos’, recorded over 10 years prior and included on Voids is a far more visceral track. This new version feels gentle and clean in comparison. The true emotional zenith of the album is reached on ‘Lords of Tresserhorn,’ the penultimate track. There’s nothing restrained there, just a runaway train of cathartic noise.
They’re bleak and slow, everything is taken over by the distortion like sinking into a lo-fi tar pit
Sea of Worry is a well-balanced record, it stops itself being a homogenous blob of sorrow with its variety. It never becomes a slog, and yet something is missing – some spark. For an album to be great there must be something more – something unexplainable that afterwards leaves the listener changed. You can bob your head to the goth party of side A but only time will tell the records staying power. There’s plenty to enjoy on the surface, but there is an over-reliance on mood and aesthetic over substance. Strip away the reverb and what is there? Good songs – not great, only good. Moreover, for all the focus on the dark atmosphere, HANL have never sounded cleaner and more produced. Their previous work had a scuzzy feel, like the music itself was sick and decaying. It’s a shame to have that mostly polished out, and the improved quality of sound only decreases their uniqueness. It’s good to have the boys back, and Dan and Tim haven’t lost their magic touch. They could just do with flying off the rails more.