One of the most emotionally powerful albums in my collection is Neil Young’s Tonight’s the Night. At its center sits the devastating “Come On Baby Let’s Go Downtown” featuring the late and severely lamented Danny Whitten, Young’s alter ego in Crazy Horse, on lead vocals. Tonight’s the Night is dedicated to Whitten, who had died just months before it was recorded, and hearing his sweet, soulful voice, singing about the drugs that would be his undoing, is a stunning cannonball-to-the-heart moment.
Work (work, work) doesn’t have such a directly, intentionally, affecting moment on it, but it comes close. As with Tonight’s the Night, a ghost hangs heavily over HTRK’s sophomore effort, in this case the recently departed Sean Stewart, the group’s bassist, who tragically killed himself last year. The situation is very different to Young’s, as Stewart figures on a lot of Work (work, work), so it’s not such an immediate and sudden emotional hit to consider his loss, but something more subtle, and gradual, one ingrained into the record’s grooves with every bass line. Yet there is, nonetheless, a “Come On Baby Let’s Go Downtown” moment, right from the off. As Jonnine Standish and Nigel Yang explained in a recent interview, opening track “Ice Eyes Eis” is made up of samples Stewart made of late-night sex chat adverts on German TV, evidently recorded one night when he was alone and depressed. You have to know this to perhaps truly appreciate the song’s emotional bleakness, but this sense of pained isolation is strongly underlined by the mournful synths, disjointed percussion and lethargic sampled choir that Yang and Standish lay onto the original found sounds. It’s a darkly moving entrance to an album that, if not directly influenced by Stewart’s passing in the way Tonight’s the Night was by Whitten, certainly relies on an atmosphere of resignation and moodiness.
On every track, muted beats and repetitive electronic patterns are married to Standish’s heavily reverbed vocals, an approach not unlike that of fellow London-based acts Hype Williams and The xx. But where the former refuses to pander to the dancefloor in any way, taking pop into random post-noise spaces, and the latter too radio-friendly to evoke any real angst or menace, HTRK sit somewhere in between, making Work (work, work) an awkward mixture of deconstructed dubstep and spectral pop, without ever gaining enough focus to be either. At times, this is hugely convincing: on the deeply cynical “Synthetik” — a barbed look at the pop/indie world HTRK had seemed destined for in the wake of their debut Marry Me, but which they now appear determined to reject — Standish’s detached vocals are perfect for the exhausted mantra of “Perfect…successful”. “Poison” meanwhile, is one of the band’s better attempts at “dubstep-lite,” the heavy bass bolstered by a guitar motif that wouldn’t sound out of place on one of Joy Division’s most despondent moments.
But HTRK isn’t as up-front about its anguish as those Mancunians were, or indeed as Young was on Tonight’s the Night. It’s hard to connect emotionally with most tracks — Standish is too far away to be heard properly and most of the melodies just drift emptily without really developing beyond their initial patterns. There’s something rather static and impersonal about Work (work, work), something that doesn’t feel intentional. As a mood piece, there are poignant moments, but nothing resembling a clear emotional statement.