Album Review: Yard Act, ‘Where’s My Utopia?’

    Yard Act may be having a laugh, but they’re never laughing off the truth; if anything, the jokes are simply one way of getting around to it. The Leeds quartet’s sense of humour was evident on their lauded debut, The Overload, which was filled with character studies that showcased the wit and colour in frontman James Smith’s writing; now that his lyrics are turning inward and the band can afford to expand their sound beyond post-punk’s minimal requirements, those qualities must find other ways to shine through. Where’s My Utopia? is every bit as stacked with hooks as its predecessor, but what makes it stand out isn’t its acerbity but its ambition; with help from Gorillaz drummer and producer Remi Kabaka Jr., Yard Act embrace a magpie approach that often leads them in the direction of dance music, or at least music you can dance to. When Smith sings “What’s the guilt worth, if you do nothing with it?” on ‘The Undertow’, it’s atop a disco groove and a flurry of strings that do nothing to undercut the meta commentary that follows: “We bare our souls on wax through tender prose/ Only to starve them of all purpose when those findings hit the shelves.”

    That’s the guilt, or part of it; Smith sneaks the most personal and damning confession earlier in the song, where he admits to being “a slave to sound,” knowing his predicament both helps provide for and distances him from his family. With fewer characters to shuffle around, he finds nuance in his own internal conflicts, which the band is both sympathetic to and amply makes space for. At times, the reconciliation of struggle and privilege manifests in confidence: the post-ironic proclamation of ‘We Make Hits’ is packaged in their most infectious songwriting, taking aim at “post-punk’s latest poster boys” that “wouldn’t have got to ride on the coattails of thе dead and claim that their derision is a vеhicle for their vision of subverting it instead.” It’s self-aware, of course, but not for making an example of, “Nice post-punk tropes you’ve got there, it would be a shame if someone subverted them.” It’s funny because you’d have to be pretty close-minded to call most of this post-punk, and subversion is clearly so far from what Yard Act’s music is currently about; Where’s My Utopia? isn’t a party record because it assumes the futility of its titular question and caustically twists it around, but because it’s genuinely, frantically searching for an answer: in the right sound, the right place, the right rhythm.

    As much pleasure as there is to be found in the immediacy and cheekiness of songs like ‘We Make Hits’ and ‘Dream Job’, Yard Act strike gold when they take pause to consider the weight of what they’re tackling, to convey emotion rather than lay out an interesting story. “I could never tell you how I’m feeling if I’m not feeling it/ It’s a standard that I set myself to ruin relationships,” Smith quips on ‘Petroleum’, a song that does a great job of exposing the weirdness of laying your soul bare and having to fuel it for a living; it’s there in Ryan Needham’s sulky bassline, Sam Shipstone’s searing guitar, and a tight beat that gives way to a frenzied industrial outro, losing control like Smith admittedly did at a particularly messy show in Bognor Regis. On ‘The Undertow’, he rhymes “What’s the guilt worth?/ If you do nothing with it” with “If you choose when to feel it,” recognizing you have to own up to those difficult emotions even when they bubble up at the worst time; even when it means singling out a moment of fear so profound it’d stop you feeling things at all.

    That’s ‘Blackpool Illuminations’, the emotional apex of an album otherwise defined by its swaggering, playful tone. Earlier, on ‘Down by the Stream’, the transition from talky, for lack of of a better word, post-punk to actual spoken-word signals the kind of sincerity Smith goes all in on for seven and a half minutes on the penultimate track, where he seems to forget about the pressures of anything to do with the band, instead taking the opportunity to create a framework – talking to a therapist – to examine the complicated nostalgia of visiting the seaside town with his parents and then seeing his own child walking the same ground. “I attained perfection/ So why the fuck was I wondering what wankers would think of album two?” he asks himself at the end, which may sound like a joke but does the opposite of diminishing the revelation he’s just reached. “Are you making this up?” the therapist asks him at one point. “Eh, some of it, yeah,” he replies, adding: “I just didn’t want to burden anyone with the truth.” The truth is there, of course, no matter how it’s presented or if it’s exactly how it happened. It’s just that some songs are craftier in following the advice Katy J Pearson hands them a couple of tracks prior: “Don’t let no one ever know about the burden that you’re smuggling.” You can never truly hide from it, of course.

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    Yard Act may be having a laugh, but they’re never laughing off the truth; if anything, the jokes are simply one way of getting around to it. The Leeds quartet’s sense of humour was evident on their lauded debut, The Overload, which was filled...Album Review: Yard Act, 'Where's My Utopia?'