By TODD MARTENS
Savages is an intense band. Lead singer Jehnny Beth will use that description herself multiple times over a series of interviews.
She has a point. The sound: Guitar-based tension at its most concentrated. Consider it the aural equivalent of a clenched fist. This, after all, is the image that graces the cover of the band’s second album, Adore Life.
The look: all black. The London-based band doesn’t deviate from this uniform, even when the temperature in Los Angeles was pushing 90 degrees in late August. Even then, leather jackets and dark blazers were not considered optional.
Pose a query to the band, and Savages will answer, but Beth will let you know when it’s time to move on. “Next question,” she’ll say. And should an interview drift into overly familiar territory, such as the members’ pre-Savages life, bassist Ayse Hassan will wave it off. “It has been documented online,” she’ll say.
In music and in person, Savages doesn’t say more than is necessary. The act’s debut album, 2013’s Silence Yourself, was a tightly wound affair that dealt with different shades of confrontation and helped catapult Savages toward the top of festival bills like Coachella, where the band is scheduled to perform in April. Winner of Britain’s prestigious Mercury Prize, Silence Yourself captured characters on the brink – of passion, of life and simply the ability to feel.
The follow-up is a sunnier affair, at least from a lyrical standpoint. Beth will say that some of the album is “naive.”
On Adore Life, the band is preoccupied with love, but it isn’t an obsession that eases Savages’ sonic assertiveness. The guitars are sharp and angled, and the rhythms fasten around the verses as if they’re a noose. Beth approaches the songs like a narrator. “I’m not going to hurt you,” she sings on the new album, “’cuz I’m flirting with you.” Yes, in the aggressive framework Savages provide, she has to spell it out.
But spend time with Savages, and the fascination with love on Adore Life starts to make sense. The members are even quite funny. They’ll joke with a waitress, and then spend two minutes after she’s left the table worrying if they’ve accidentally offended her. Savages members may be intense, but they’re forces of positivity. Honest.
Beth, however, wasn’t very positive when she looked at the first batch of songs for what would ultimately become Adore Life. The French-born artist, who was an actress in her native country before turning to music, was nervous they were trite, superficial. Does the world really need another artist singing about love?
“It’s an easy subject, maybe?” she says. “But for me it was a hard subject because of that. It’s so used. On the first record it was intentional not to write love songs.”
Vulnerability is at the core of Adore Life, but there are no heart-on-sleeves confessionals or breakup anthems here, just open-wounded songs in which guilt, jealousy and societal conventions get all mixed up in affairs of the heart.
Adore Life, says Beth, was about allowing the band “to be vulnerable, to put something out in the world that you don’t have all the answers about. I think there’s a strength into that.”
The song Adore is as close as anything in the Savages catalogue to a ballad, and for a brief moment Thompson’s distorted guitar leads the song into a slow dance. “Is it human,” Beth sings, “to adore life?” Is it OK, in other words, in this mixed-up mess of a world to simply feel bliss?
“When you do something for yourself or your pleasure, you have to deal with all the opposite feelings. The song is about embracing that and getting rid of the guilt,” Beth says.
Adore Life views love – and our approach to it – as a force that guides every decision we make. The urgent gallop of Evil deals with familial pressures while Sad Person wonders if the quest for affection isn’t a mood-altering addiction. Beth lets her voice crack, Milton’s drums rattle the walls and Thompson’s guitar streaks around the song like a jet struggling to pull out of a spin.
Viewed as a whole, it’s a work about seizing control, of harnessing our emotions rather than letting them tear us apart. When in Love examines the line between loneliness and companionship. “You say you want love, but what kind of love?,” Beth shouts.
She’s asked if the line is key to understanding Adore Life.
“Everybody wants love, but not everybody knows what it means,” she says after a moment. “Love is not something that falls from the sky.
“I’m a firm believer that love is something you build. Love is something you do. Love is an action. There is not a moment where love is just going to come from above and solve all your problems. That will never happen. So you have to accept that there’s never a moment in life where you can rest. Happiness is in always being one foot ahead of yourself, always thinking of what’s coming next.
“You have to be active in everything that you do. That’s how love exists,” she says. “If you’re waiting for love to happen without being active about it, it’s not going to happen. That’s what I believe. So when you say you want love, what kind of love? You need to ask yourself that question in order to have it.
“Love,” she says one more time for emphasis, “is an action.” – Los Angeles Times/Tribune News Service