As important as first impressions can be, they’re often given more weight than they deserve. Lead singles often receive these types of extreme initial reactions, something exacerbated by the seemingly increasing number of pre-album tracks bands release these days. Sure, these songs can be a perfect outline for what listeners should expect from the album as a whole, but they can also paint a false portrait later proved incorrect by listening to what the full track list actually contains. As with anything in life, performing your due diligence is almost always beneficial.
Such was the case when I heard the title track from Sea of Worry and immediately drew my own conclusions about Have a Nice Life‘s career trajectory. The genre-splicing duo of Dan Barrett and Tim Macuga have taken an extreme approach to crafting a “quality over quantity” discography. Sea of Worry is just their third album released in the last decade, though it follows two of the most beloved releases from the niche “doomgaze” subgenre. Cult classic Deathconsciousness (2008) and its worthy follow-up The Unnatural World (2014) create dreary atmospheres that are as consuming and bleak as they are cautiously hopeful. The duo accomplish this by crafting seamless collisions of shoegaze and ethereal wave sensibilities with the darker worlds of goth rock and post-punk.
It’s with all of this in mind that I left my first spin of “Sea of Worry” with an ocean of apprehension. It’s an undeniably solid post-punk track, but that’s not the kind of sound that made Have a Nice Life such a household name in the musical underground. The track doesn’t dial it back to mere Joy Division, mind you, but it did feel relatively safe compared to what the duo have accomplished in the past. Being an avid fan of their past two albums, I braced for the worst, which I predicted would likely be a good release that paled in comparison to its predecessors.
Fortunately, this was a gross overreaction, and a classic example of reading too much into just one song on an album full of unique ideas. Similar to the jump between Deathconsciousness and The Unnatural World, what Barrett and Macuga have produced with Sea of Worry is a record all its own that still pulls from the playbook they’ve built up to this point. It does lean more heavily into the band’s post-punk roots than either of their previous records, but they use that foundation to deliver a fresh perspective.
Listening to “Sea of Worry” with the context of the album in mind, it now comes across as an energetic intro for the twists and turns that the record has in store. With fitting production and heaps of reverb, the duo sway through a bouncy slab of post-punk, complete with melancholic guitar arpeggios, hypnotic bass lines, and tight percussion. Later on in the album, “Trespassers W” unravels in much the same, albeit with brasher, louder drumming. It might be some of the band’s most straightforward tracks, but that doesn’t really matter when the results are this enjoyable.
The duo’s emphasis on post-punk continues to unfurl with each subsequent track. “Dracula Bells” amplifies the genre’s melodic tendencies as heard on the title track, as the track central guitar melody soars over a jittery piano refrain. It flirts with the true “proto” era of punk and post-punk past, amplifying the disparate emotions that comprise the genres’ melancholic core. The duo brings these trends into the ’80s on “Science Beast,” with airy synths and a driving beat engulfing light, heartbroken vocals. It could serve as the perfect soundtrack for a goth prom slow dance.
The album’s b-side hearkens back to the duo’s experimental tendencies. “Everything We Forget” sees the band produce on of their signature, all-encompassing drones, with sharp, pulsating synths and woozy synth pads creating a trance-like effect. The OG vibes continue on “Lords of Tresserhorn,” which offers the kind of off-kilter take on post-punk that endeared fans to their sound. A fuzzy, effect-soaked bass line and obscured drums provide the backdrop for deadpan vocals and flittering synth patterns, a combination which grows progressively louder and more abrasive until it erupts into a huge post-rock crescendo. Finally, the duo indulger their love of samples on album finale “Destinos.” A recording of a fire-and-brimstone sermon fades into building and distorted acoustic guitars, synths, and piano, offering the kind of diverse, bizarre collective experiment that’d defined Have a Nice Life’s career.
Our reaction to change is always relative to our prior expectations. This can be a flawed line of thinking when it comes to bands like Have a Nice Life, whose sound constantly ebbs and flows between genres and their own signature synthesis of those styles. We may only receive a new release from the duo every five to six years, but with each of their albums, the experience has been rich and deeply rewarding. Each installment in the band’s discography hasn’t been exactly what we expected, but regardless, the results have always been enthralling and excellent.
Sea of Worry is available Nov. 8 via The Flenser.