After Benjamin Curtis’s death in 2014, surviving School of Seven Bells member Alejandra Deheza had a monumental task; finish what she and her once romantically involved band mate had started. Work on their 4th album had already begun when Curtis was diagnosed with a rare form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 2013 – three years later SVIIB has arrived.
An album with such a tragic and well-known back story brings with it a huge weight of expectation and, (unfortunately) perverse curiosity. People love a tragedy and, without a doubt, SVIIB will attract its share of onlookers waiting to pick it apart, desperate to find a grieving Deheza to patronise about and gawk at. Well, bad news, there is no trembling grief-stricken woman at the centre of this album. Instead, she’s assured, reflective and utterly beautiful in her execution. Although the loss of Curtis permeates throughout, he’s no ghost here either. The polished synths and sweeping, multi-layered textures that Curtis wove throughout the previous 3 SVIIB albums (Alpinisms (2008), Disconnect from Desire (2010) and Ghostory (2012)) maintain that dream like a signature, possibly even more so now.
“How could I have known the God of my youth would come crashing down on my heart”, utters the first line of album opener ‘Ablaze’. A wonderfully rendered dance-pop song, driven by snapping snare, rhythmic, pulsing synths and vocal hook, Deheza’s voice echoing throughout the space. The emotional bar is set pretty high with the opening lyric, but by the time the last “you set my heart ablaze again” is sung out, you’ve already recognised this won’t be a completely sorrowful experience.
SVIIB plays like a true love story. The tragic pain and complex emotions that accompany any loving relationship are all covered here, the good, the bad and the embarrassingly familiar. Anyone who’s ever suffered from a lack of trust or confidence in a relationship will be hiding behind their hands or biting their fists during the opening verses to ‘On My Heart’; “…you go and simmer through the night, then we end up in a fight and it’s such a waste of time…” and “…so when you call me on the phone and you hear I’m not alone, no it doesn’t mean that things have gone wrong…”. Lyrical moments like this hit hard throughout. Explicitly real, it’s scary how this album draws attention to our own vulnerabilities and it’s just so damn hard not to be affected while listening.
There’s a temptation to attribute every moment on SVIIB to the back story, but the truth is most of the ‘writing’ was completed before Curtis’s death. ‘Finishing’ the album, however, means that a line like “there was a you before me, there was a me before you and that’s the way it goes” suddenly echoes a different meaning. The stunning ‘Open Your Eyes’, the first song to be shared from the album late last year, is another juxtaposition between its initial inception and finished article. A song written by Deheza about her relationship with Curtis before his diagnosis, the words “moving on” are painfully apt.
Still, SVIIB has plenty of uplifting moments. The reassuring, sparkling ‘A Thousand Times More’ and ‘Signals’, in particular, showcasing the duo’s brilliance at delivering glistening and infectious electro-pop.
The full spectrum of emotion culminates in the final two tracks, ‘Confusion’ and ‘This Is Our Time’. Written after Curtis’s diagnosis, ‘Confusion’ was the final track on the album the duo wrote together. Unsurprisingly, it also makes it the most difficult track to listen to. Curtis’s synths, slow and deep under the lyric “confusion weighs so heavy and I understand nothing of these changes”. It would have been tempting to end the record there but ‘This Is Our Time’ has one last nod of acceptance and reflection as Deheza breathes out “our time is indestructible”. As the song ends it builds to a crescendo of buzzing synths against the steady snapping snare and the final synth line we will hear from Benjamin Curtis and School of Seven Bells.
SVIIB is simply beautiful, both in its sentiment and execution. On its own, technically brilliant and infectious, but what makes this more than just another great electro-pop album is its heartfelt truth. A fitting tribute, not just to Curtis but to a band that has always tried to portray something real.