by Jonah Covell
[originally published February 2022]
To say Dave Le’Aupepe and indie rock quintet Gang of Youths have been through a lot since their last trip to the studio would probably be an understatement. Ahead of the release of 2017’s “'Go Farther in Lightness,” they moved from Sydney to London and watched their homeland popularity balloon just as they set up base overseas. The next year, Le'Aupepe’s dad, Tattersall, died. Tattersall’s story and secrets dominate the group’s new record: angel in realtime.
After Tattersall’s death. Le’Aupepe tracked down his father’s birth certificate, prompting a string of revelations. His father had claimed to be 70 years old –– in reality he was 80. He’d lived the last 50 years of his life telling his wife and two kids that he was born and raised in New Zealand, the child of a Samoan and a European Jewish refugee. In truth he was born and raised in Samoa, fully indigenous by blood. In his 20s he moved to New Zealand, fathering and abandoning two sons. Later on he moved to Australia, where he met Dave’s mother and began the life the younger Le’Aupepe knew.
Despite its focus on loss and history, the new album sounds like a joyous yell. It forms an exuberant paean to Tattersall and life itself. In keeping with Gang of Youths’ history of jubilant, dinosaur-sized stadium rock about cancer, divorce, and suicide attempts, angel is in love with living and proud to broadcast its heart in a giant wall of sound. Gang of Youths overwhelming earnestness and uninterest in irony has been cited as a reason the band hasn’t caught on in the United States. Even when self-aware, Le’aupepe refrains from employing irony, instead opting for self deprecation. On early highlight “returner,” a variant on the disillusioned rock star trope, he sings: “Send my regards to the shapers of the industry/It's highly unlikely they'll be as blatant as that/ I got love for the theorists and the punks and the idealists / But let's be honest, I'm only in it for the cash.”
Le’aupepe’s lyricism unapologetically reaches toward high intentions, but never without a wink and a grin, admitting he sometimes has no fucking clue what exactly he’s working at. On “forbearance,” a track where he ponders switching places with Tattersall, he cracks: “But I'm still the asshole down here nonetheless/In the comedown affray/Came to fix what I fucked up today/'Cause the world is not done with me.”
Sonically, angel, though no brave experiment, does show Gang of Youth opening up their palette and leaving behind the U2 + Springsteen sound they’ve sometimes been stuck in. Notably, a dynamic synths frames “tend the garden,” while Maori artist Shane Maclean contributes a striking prayer in Te Reo, which becomes the centerpiece of “spirit boy”. Throughout, the group samples from Cook Islander hymns to a powerful effect, especially on opener “youn in everything” and “unison”.
angel in realtime. suffers from one major flaw: it’s simply too big. Stretching 13 songs, 67 minutes, and a whole lot of string arrangements, listening to the whole thing in one go can feel overwhelming. Many of the songs are of the start soft and swell to a powerful climax variety, which can feel the tiniest bit formulaic by the end. The 7-minute finale “goal of the century” is made up of entertaining references and familial meditations, but offers no new ground to cover. The album's tone of endless jubilation can work against the lyrical content. By the time “the man himself” comes on, the lines “I dunno if I'll ever feel right / And let everything change to things that can make a man grow tall,” sound too much like affirmations, belying their questioning nature.
angel., though outsized in its merits and flaws, is a work to be admired. Le’Aupepe and co. have done something pretty uncommon in this age: staking a claim for music that is an intimate, honest outpouring –– that just happens to be joyous and maximal.