Atwood Magazine’s writers discuss their reactions to the sounds and songs of The Wombats’ fourth album Beautiful People Will Ruin Your Life.
Featured here are Carolyn Fasone, Matthew Tordoff, Christine Costello, Alex Killian, and Natalie Harmsen
This is The Wombats’ first album in three years. Did it meet, exceed, or fall short of any expectations you might’ve had?
Carolyn: I think it certainly exceeded my expectations. I liked Glitterbug, but not nearly as much as their earlier stuff. This felt like a return to their classic style with a fresh new twist.
Matthew: Glitterbug was the first album I listened to by The Wombats – which was my favourite until Beautiful People Will Ruin Your Life. “Lemon to a Knife Fight” and “Turn” perked my ears with their ingenious turn of phrase; and both feature clever songwriting, which has always been ‘The Wombats’ strongest facet. I was expecting big things from this band, and they haven’t disappointed.
Natalie: It definitely exceeded my expectations! I like pretty much everything they’ve released, and this feels like the most cohesive album they’ve done in awhile. Honestly, it might be one of my favourite albums by them since their debut.
Christine: They’re certainly veering towards their biggest career peak, against all odds might I add, considering the noughties indie scene was drifting towards extinction the past few years. After the commercial success of Glitterbug, I feel like this album is bursting with revitalising energy. Unlike the follow up albums to ‘A Guide To Love’, Beautiful People feels like a whole new slate. While the other albums were merely less-worthy sequels. This album, for me, is filled with the energy and surprising excellence of another debut.
Alex: Personally, I wasn’t sure what I was expecting. After hearing the first couple of singles, I figured it would be a different direction compared to Glitterbug, especially, but I wasn’t sure to what extent. I guess if I had any expectations they were to like the album at least as much as I liked Glitterbug and This Modern Glitch, so in that sense it fell a ways short. Beautiful People Will Ruin Your Life just doesn’t strike the same chords for me.
Do you think Beautiful People Will Ruin Your Life touts a new or different sound compared to The Wombats’ past work?
Matthew: Beautiful People offers a contrast to Glitterbug, but still retains all the essential factors that make their music unique. Unfortunately, it’s not an entirely different sound for them: the opulent, and distracting metaphors they incorporate don’t conceal how this is familiar territory for The Wombats (in terms of sound). However, this doesn’t detract from the album. Beautiful People might not be innovative, but it’s polished and refined when compared to their previous work, which is still an achievement in itself.
Carolyn: The hype that was built around this album made it seem like this would be a complete revamping of The Wombats sound but for me, it didn’t really feel like that. The band seems to have kept the classic elements that make for great Wombats music–catchy tunes, witty lyrics, and beats that make you want to dance. It’s definitely less synthy than Glitterbug, but it is still clearly a Wombats album.
Natalie: I feel that it’s not a new sound for them, and yet it’s everything that I wanted to hear. It sounds very similar to their earlier works. It’s less retro sounding than Glitterbug but still very much what we come to expect from the band. It’s nothing new.
Christine: I feel they’ve come a long way. It’s not a completely different sound, but the final finish has more of a gloss than their older stuff. This sound brings them from acoustic in the living room to headlining festival stages. The style, while not straying too far from their indie roots, fits neatly with the second generation of indie rock bands that came after them.
Alex: I’d say it sounds most like a return to their more pop rock focused pre-Glitterbug work. It showcases a lot of similarities in structure and arrangement to their previous music, which I like, but still feels much more radio friendly and alternative pop rock leaning. I will say this album feels a bit laborious and almost a bit sanitized or hollow compared to past work, though.
The Wombats’ Matthew Murphy is quoted as saying he “was pushing for the album to be more organic and less synth-driven.” Do you think that was accomplished?
Alex: I think it was accomplished, though I’m not sure it’s for the better. That comment makes a lot of sense to me because the sound feels a bit forced and stagnant throughout the album. I think it’s fine to have a specific sound or direction you want to shoot for, but if that doesn’t happen naturally it really ends up as a detriment to the finished product if it sounds inauthentic.
Carolyn: I do think the album is a lot less synthy and more of a clear-cut pop rock album, but I don’t really get the more organic sound. This album doesn’t seem to take any risks. The songs are nice, but it’s really nothing to write home about. It is a good album, but falls flat against what we know The Wombats can accomplish. The Modern Glitch had so much feeling put into it that it felt like you could feel Matthew Murphy’s emotions dripping through each track. This album feels very relaxed and a little bit lazy.
Natalie: There are definitely less synths! However, I don’t know that it’s more organic. I feel that it sets out to be fun with clever wordplay and addictive melodies, and that’s pretty much all that it does. But there isn’t necessarily anything wrong with that. Sometimes bands evolve by not changing very much, and the lack of experimentation on this record I think makes it one of their strongest ones. There are themes that tie the whole album together, and it proves that they don’t need to drastically spice up their sound in order to make a good album.
Christine: A lack of synths doesn’t necessarily make something more organic, nor does the use of synths make a song less organic. And in the case of Beautiful People, there is a substantial lack of synths, but it still lacks the organic and raw sound of The Wombats’ debut.
Matthew: Murphy’s made the mistake of thinking that “being organic” and creating “synth-driven” music are mutually exclusive. For me, the “organic” nature of The Wombats is derived from their lyrics, not their sound. It’s easy for indie bands to fall into cliche tropes, and rely on singing about teen angst – yet they’ve always managed to avoid this, because their skillful lyrics save their music from the repetitive sound of indie music. I think Murphy’s need to accomplish his aim is redundant, because The Wombats didn’t lose what made them organic in the first place.
What is your favorite song off the album and why?
Carolyn: My favorite song is “Lethal Combination.” I mostly like it because it’s catchy and a little bit slower than the other tracks. I think the psychedelic rock atmosphere that they were going for really comes through with this track. This is one track that feels really different than their previous work. They seemed to have taken chances in its production, mixing synth-produced sounds and classic guitars.
Natalie: I really like “White Eyes” and “Dip You in Honey” so there’s a tie between those two. “White Eyes” just feels like classic Wombats. Both of them have the kind of melody that gets stuck in your head quite easily so that’s also probably why I enjoy them so much. They both have an upbeat, hypnotic energy that radiates through the music. They’re both very polished. “Dip You in Honey” reminds me of “Ticket to Ride” by The Beatles at the beginning which I love. It’s that unexpected classic-rock inspired flavour that elevates the song.
Christine: Cheetah Tongue. A stellar opening track that could open any festival. It possesses all the components of a good song; contemporary enough to draw interest from modern audiences, but also leaves devout fans with a pang of nostalgia for the bygone indie era from which The Wombats stemmed.
Alex: “Out of My Head” is probably my favorite track. I love the way it opens with that bangin’ bassline and the bass really anchors and carries the song. Plus, I think Murphy’s voice really shines on this one – the vocals sound more emotionally charged than many of the other tracks on the record. It’s just got a lot of really nice layers and seems to come together effortlessly. I also really dig “Lethal Combination” and “Cheetah Tongue” for similar reasons – they sound like natural progressions from Glitterbug.
Matthew: Before the full album was released, I was adamant that “Turn” was my favourite song. But “Cheetah Tongue” quickly became the stand-out track from Beautiful People. Murphy’s vocals are the focal point for a majority of The Wombats music, but the dynamic, eccentric guitar riffs contrast with a reserved bass, making for an iconic opening track you can’t help but dance to. “Lethal Combination” and “Ice Cream” are equally good, but don’t have the same reckless abandon that “Cheetah Tongue” does.
What is your least favorite song off the album and why?
Carolyn: Although I think “Cheetah Tongue” sets a nice tone for the album, I would have to say it does the least for me. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of passion or emotion put into the song. It feels like a factory made psych-pop song rather than that organic feel they were going for with the album.
Natalie: “Lemon to a Knife Fight” is the only song I ever skip, and I think it’s only because I listened to it so frequently before the album came out, so I’m just tired of it. Also it doesn’t have as enticing of a melody as the other tracks.
Christine: It’s White Eyes for me. The track stunts the flow of the album. It strays from the natural development of the Wombats sound and drives full force into the forbidden territory of Maroon 5 and Coldplay, dangerously bland without any real purpose or direction.
Alex: “I Only Wear Black” is my least favorite. It feels a bit gratuitous and uninspired to me; kind of like filler. It doesn’t do much for the album sonically in my opinion. “Turn” is also pretty low on my list, if only for lyrics like “I want to get college girl drunk tonight” and “listening to Drake at your best friend’s swimming pool.” Meaningful lyricism isn’t necessarily required, but these lines just come across as juvenile and uninspired to me.
Matthew: “Black Flamingo” didn’t register when I first listened to Beautiful People. It wasn’t as distinguished, or well realised as the other tracks. The Wombats’ music can usually grab my attention. Meanwhile, this song wasn’t didn’t even attempt to grab my attention. The desire to feel “organic” makes “Black Flamingo” feel contrived, and forced on what is an otherwise impeccable album.
Do you wish the Wombats had done anything differently on the album?
Carolyn: I miss the grandiose-ness of The Modern Glitch. I wish there was a little more showmanship shown in this album. A lot of the songs seem a little hit or miss and don’t have a ton of feeling infused into them. They feel as though they have plateaued rather than risen as artists. This album feels very safe.
Alex: I basically said this already, but I wish they hadn’t tried so hard to make it “less synth-driven.” It’s one thing to evolve naturally away from a previous sound, but to try and force it is kind of the worst thing you can do in my opinion. I also feel like Murphy’s vocals are a bit plateaued throughout the record – they don’t have the same punch we hear on their older stuff, which is a bummer. That said I do still enjoy a good portion of the tracks on the album. Beautiful People is just a bit of a disappointment as a whole for me, especially considering how hyped up it was and how long it’s been since we’ve gotten new music.
Any final thoughts you want to mention?
Carolyn: I like the album, but I know they can do better.
Alex: I still dig The Wombats and will probably keep jamming to a good chunk of this album. I can only hope they get out of their heads and back into their hearts when they start creating again.
Natalie: I really like it. I feel like most albums that have dropped this year are all trying to hard to step outside of the box, but this one feels almost as if they’ve fought to stay inside their niche because they know their sound so well.
Matthew: The Wombats have triumphed on Beautiful People Will Ruin Your LIfe; a career best album, and the pinnacle of their inventive lyricism. Glitterbug will always be special, since this was how I discovered The Wombats. But they’re consistent in both writing and sound, which makes for my favourite album of theirs to date.
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photo © The Wombats