By J Howell
The concept of the “sophomore slump” may be a tired old critical cliché, but it’s applicable often enough that when a band with a great debut gets around to that second record, one may find oneself a bit nervous. Thankfully, Peggy Sue—whose Fossils and Other Phantoms was likely the best debut album of last year—have not only avoided the second record hex, they’ve completely obliterated it. It’s difficult to recall another sophomore effort that so masterfully retained the best of its creators’ aesthetic while expounding upon it by orders of magnitude; the example that springs to mind is Castanets’ First Light’s Freeze, and like that record, Acrobats may well stand as a modern classic.
While there’s more than enough of what made Fossils so compelling as to be instantly recognizable as Peggy Sue present here, the Brighton trio’s sound has shifted notably. The most obvious sea change is the near-complete lack of acoustic guitar—this is a very electric record. The band made a very wise choice in working with John Parish as producer. Parish’s involvement may lead some listeners to prematurely draw PJ Harvey comparisons, and to be fair, the first song, “Cut My Teeth,” does begin with a groove Harvey fans will find familiar, as for just a second it’s similar enough to “I Think I’m A Mother” that it could easily be an inside joke on the band’s part. A few moments in, however, the song shifts, builds tension, then erupts into something so inimitably Peggy Sue as to leave any notion of Harvey wannabeism in the dust. More than anything, this band’s strong suit is being itself, and with Acrobats, Peggy Sue seem to only get better at it.
As with Fossils, this record is not for everyone. The overall mood is similarly dour, and plugging in and turning up certainly doesn’t make for a less raw listening experience. The underlying tension is palpable even in the sparer songs, subtly underscoring the unease of our narrator. In “Parking Meter Blues,” lyrics such as I kept one eye on the phone, the other on the clock, the numbers let me know that nothing else had stopped, except you and I lend an almost paranoiac urgency, making the air feel heavy with expectation even as the music is relatively calming.
The production serves the music well, almost to a fault: Upon the first couple of listens, those familiar with Parish’s work (a long list of favorites that gets longer every year, including Goldfrapp, eels, Sparklehorse, and most notably, PJ Harvey) may be somewhat startled. It’s a bit difficult to quantify, but there’s a certain closeness to the sound of Acrobats; to use another tired old cliché, it’s a bit in your face, certainly moreso than any Parish production thus far. Initially, it’s a bit unsettling, but that quality couldn’t fit the feel of this record better.
If there’s a similarity to PJ Harvey’s work present here, it’s that Peggy Sue have both the the spine and good sense to follow the lead of the songs with integrity. Where many artists may have chosen to soften or polish or otherwise compromise for the sake of consumability, Peggy Sue and Parish choose a path that’s challenging at times, but ultimately rewarding as a result. As such, Acrobats reveals its brilliance upon repeated listening. While some listeners may initially be put off by the less-than-sunny disposition, it’s more than worth coming back to.
Rosa and Katy’s vocal harmonies are spectacularly lovely and absolutely raw. Their guitars are compelling and visceral, maintaining an impressive clarity while often feeling on the verge of imploding with gritty, fuzzy rage. Drummer Olly’s contribution to the band’s prior effort was impressive, but on Acrobats, the percussion seems better integrated as part of a cohesive whole. This record is sure to inspire a considerable amount of air drumming, particularly the closing track, “There Always Was.” Olly’s drumming, and indeed the overall feel of Acrobats, is somewhat unlikely, full of ghosts and conspicuous absences yet evoking something strange and at times almost anachronistically powerful, like a steam-powered robot. Which is to say, it’s timeless and powerful, if a bit harrowing.
Even in a year that offered a number of truly great records, Acrobats stands out. Peggy Sue have a unique voice that could be headed toward iconoclastic, should it come to touch on a wider range of emotional experiences, at the very least one that will be interesting to watch further develop. In the meantime, though, this record couldn’t come more highly recommended.