There may be no album introduction this year more prescient than the first two minutes of The Talkies. At the centre of “Prolix” is a series of deep breaths that feel controlled, but laboured, as though razor-sharp focus is needed to keep this person from overexerting. At the tail end, the breathing speeds up and begins to sound more painful as it cuts away abruptly to the next track. Eerie and understated, “Prolix” serves as a mission statement for the naked truth of the whole album: It’s not just for the camera, it’s a recording of a real panic attack that lead vocalist Dara Kiely had in the studio.
If you’re familiar with Girl Band’s first album, 2015’s Holding Hands With Jamie, you know that mental health struggles are pretty par for the course. But The Talkies handles the subject in a slightly different way, enveloping the listener in a more pure atmosphere than ever before. With the instrumentals settling into more of a mood-setting role, almost all of the melody sifts forward to the vocals, which on songs like “Couch Combover” are so dramatically melodic that it’s damn near funny.
The musical bread and butter here is repetition, which is used to unease the listener at every corner. Holding Hands had a percussive, boisterous way of repeating itself that made it feel like an assembly line in a cartoon factory. The Talkies feels more like a hospital, pulling from some of the same philosophy as Clipping’s Splendor & Misery with quiet, suspenseful electronic stutters that ring like heart monitors. See “Prolix” of course, but also “Couch Combover,” and the dynamic spoken-word piece “Salmon of Knowledge.”
Like most of the album, “Salmon of Knowledge” doesn’t form a coherent sentence at any point in its lyrics. Countless interpretations could be made on lines like “Olds with a fish for a face/And bit off all the dead foot skin” and the endlessly iterated “Out of the circle,” but one might find a bit more difficulty trying to glean meaning from “Mean it, bean it” or “Go, go giddy, giddy, giddy, go.” As the song becomes wordier, Kiely’s voice becomes louder, rising from an intense, angry lecture to a full-on shout.
Elsewhere, Kiely locks in the idea that lyrics exist on this album more as a vessel for the many shades of his voice than anything else. On “Aibohphobia,” he does this by simply reciting various palindromic phrases behind a cloud of echoes. Half sentences like “Acrobats stab orca” and “Cain a maniac” are blurred by the album’s noisy production. On “Amygdala,” he forgoes the lyrics entirely, opting instead for drunken howling, indecipherable slurring, and loud hacking and coughing between bouts of hyperventilation.
The Talkies is constantly teetering on the edge of a breakdown, but it’s not often that it allows itself to indulge in explosions. As it begins to approach its close, however, it finally begins to reach the point of no return. “Caveat” is one such moment, where just past the halfway point, Kiely comes in at a tortured, teary-eyed mumble, backed by some of the most brutal percussion on the record. “Laggard,” the most unconventional song on the album, contains another release of tension, but for such a short time that it would barely qualify if it weren’t so impossible to miss. The ten-second punishment comes out of left field at the end of a folksy two-minute low boil, and it’s a strong contender for the album’s biggest jaw-dropping moment.
The Talkies is an album that only gets better as it gets more unpredictable. You get a hint of this on “Going Norway,” and much more on “Laggard,” but it’s best exemplified by the lengthy last hurrah “Prefab Castle.” This track’s hornets’ nest of a development section shows off some of the strangest and most beautiful sounds in the Girl Band catalogue, taking an entire album’s worth of statements on inner agony and throwing in a few scraps of hope and clarity. But it quickly returns to the mud, plunging itself into some of its most bizarre horror before fading out completely.
It’s not easy to top an album like Holding Hands With Jamie, but Girl Band’s return has certainly pushed their sound a little bit further into the wilderness. The Talkies will provide a challenge for old fans and newcomers alike, but the time it will take to get acquainted with their new palette of colours is well worth the final picture.