GANG OF YOUTHS
Angel In Realtime (Sony)
IF ANGEL IN REALTIME OSTENSIBLY is an ode to a father now gone, it reveals itself as a portrait of a son passing back and forth between grief and searching and understanding, in his father’s wake. In his father’s shadow.
David Le’aupepe asks of himself in the opening track, You In Everything, “How do I face the world or raise a fucking kid/Or see beauty in the earth and all its majesty replete/When I’ve spent the better part of my 20s doing self-indulgent bullshit on repeat?”. A dozen tracks later, as he contemplates “the sum of a life” in Goal Of The Century, the answer hasn’t magically appeared, but the path to it has some light shone on it: “Head down I’m writing this shit out/On my phone/A way that I can talk to you/And reach you.”
The tenderness with which Le’aupepe speaks of his father, his brothers, his wife and ultimately of himself becomes the defining feature of Gang Of Youth’s third album. As a corollary, forgiveness underpins the emotional landscape he draws, though its components suggest it would not have been easy or guaranteed.
Not just forgiveness for the mistakes of an earlier generation constantly having to make new lives (“Come find me/I’m here today but don’t belong/I’m working ‘til the debt is gone”), but for the younger version of himself who could have/should have said more and thought more, and the older version who might have made better choices.
The full complexities of his father’s life, and the wash through several generations, ripple across the songs, a vivid impression created so that imagined thoughts like “In the instance of pain, I look straight down at the iris/If the irises fade/I spend days out in the yard/In the absence of rain”, feel truthful. Sure, we are only getting part of the story, but it feels rich with detail and provides the cornerstone to Le’aupepe’s own character, whose loves and second thoughts are chronicled in parallel.
A father who abandoned one family and built another who knew nothing of the first, spinning a story of his own childhood which would only be exposed as a myth after his death. The older sons who didn’t understand why they had been left, the younger son dealing with the guilt of having that love the others didn’t have (“I accounted for the miles of attention/That I got but never want nor choose”), and fearing he’d wasted it, like maybe he’s wasting his life in pursuit of a near impossible dream.
So much to tell. Would the only way to tell this story be to present it in an equally full, equally emotional and dramatic rock-as-done-by-sons-of-Springsteen fashion? That has been the Gang Of Youths way: to come charging at you and lift you for that psychic crowd surf, or to creep in, build up, and then come charging at you for that psychic crowd surf.
Well, experimentation is evident here stylistically, (look, early 2000s groove-conscious U2 in Tend The Garden to balance the Eno-era yearning rock U2 in Spirit Boy; kinetic The National rhythmic pulse in Forbearance as the other side of the coin from, um, The National rhythmic pulse-with-euphoric chorus in The Man Himself), and instrumentally, but not necessarily structurally and definitely not sonically.
For much of the album, air to breathe is rare, especially the longer the song goes (Forbearance being a notable exception). Mostly, sooner or later all the available room is filled, from drum loops and live drums to guitars and synths, from brass and choirs to strings and piano, from sampled voices and sounds of the Cook Islands to woodwind and cor anglaise, from marimba and saxophones to traditional Maori instruments.
Certainly those songs perform their function: punching the air and twirling around the propulsive rhythm section in In The Wake Of Your Leave and The Angel Of 8th Avenue, in the manner of a heartland rock band with secret desire to be goths; growing from a folkish heel-tapper to a violins singing-with-fans-in-the-terraces climax in Returner; and adding layer on layer of tuned percussion and low brass and strings in Unison until the drum loops override any remaining reticence and a Pasifika Bono brings us home.
They make all the right moves, the effort writ clearly on the surface of everything, and undoubtedly those packed, hot room concerts will peak regularly with these anthems-in-waiting choruses. But, maybe whisper it, in repetition and volume these big, bold songs are … perfectly fine.
Instead, Brothers, where Le’aupepe presents as hunched over a piano, almost singing to himself, Hand Of God, which repeats that formula, except towards the end he is joined gently by Auckland Gospel Choir, and the closing track, Goal Of The Century, which goes back and forth in its seven minutes between voice/piano/low-key strings and chasing-the-thrill full orchestration, are the album’s standouts.
Is it a coincidence that the special moments, the ones that most match the particularly personal stories being told, are the most exposed and the most simple?
SPOTIFY: Listen to Gang Of Youths – Angel In Realtime
APPLE MUSIC: Listen to Gang Of Youths – Angel In Realtime
A version of this review ran originally in The Guardian.