‘Write what you know’, the mantra passed down from generations of musicians to one another. All great artists are associated with a time and place, a lucky few are associated with many. This is because their work comes to embody both the time and place which they inhabit when creating they’re music. At its core, song writing is the knack of being able to turn the ordinary into something more. To take in one’s surroundings and present it with your own unique perspective.
The debut album from Dublin-based alternative rock group Shrug Life certainly comes from a unique perspective. Entitled ¯\_(?)_/¯, the album has created an idiosyncratic take on the indie genre.
Musically, the group aren’t reinventing the wheel. The instrumental tracks on the album are upbeat and fast. The trio, consisting of a guitar/singer, bass and drums set-up seem to have studied the college rock scene of the mid ’90s thoroughly.
The tracks are concise and catchy. Opening track First World Problems sets the tone which much of the album to come will follow. A swinging chord progression, carried in the guitars, plays repeated over the rhythm section. The production is clean and the upbeat sound refreshing, but it’s nothing that any indie or alternative rock fan hasn’t heard before.
The raison d’etre on ¯\_(?)_/¯ isn’t any ground-breaking production or instrumental virtuosity. It’s the wholly unique perspective singer Danny Carroll offers in his lyrical content. Carroll presents his cynical and often quasi ironic work takes on the mundanity of everyday life in a thoroughly entertaining manner. First time listeners will ‘get’ the band’s name from the get go.
Making Progress takes a satirical look at the idea of a more progressive Ireland and the concept of blind patriotism itself. Lines like “A country built on brown envelopes” or “Your patriotic platitudes, will pay the bills this month” represent the sardonic wit of Carroll at it’s very best. Groups like The Smiths have operated on the same irony, but the Irish setting and utter lack of melodrama in Shrug Life’s songs are unique only to themselves. There’s little mystery to be solved in the stories these songs tell. The band simply tell it like they see it, line for line.
The group’s focus on the absurdity of the mundane is almost Beckettian, a track like Temp Job would be funny were it not for how tragic is really is. For the majority of us, aspiring for more but caught in the trap of a day job, lines like “Feel your hopes and your hair line grow thinner” are a little too close to the bone for laughter.
The best material on the album comes on it’s b-side, where the band allow the tempo to drop a little and the mix to sound less frantic, a little less rushed. The album takes a breath and the guitar a break from beating you over the head with the seemingly endless and sometimes abrasive four chord variations.
The best track among them all is Skype Calls. The warmer bass tone and half measure drum parts here feel like a cut from The Temptations. Some superb guitar fills add character while allowing the vocals to have the prominent place in the mix.
The track details the relationship between the singer and his brother, viewed through the lens of their Skype calls to one another. It’s one of the few songs on the album that feels genuinely affectionate, despite the omni-present ironic quips. With some excellent backing vocals over the dynamic swells of the guitar, Skype Calls is Shrug life at their very best and most human.
¯\_(?)_/¯ is a fine album and undoubtedly the most unique Irish release you’ll hear this year. Shrug Life seem to have mastered the sound they’re aspiring for. If you’re into the traditional indie rock trio set up you’ll enjoy they’re instrumentals. Singer Danny Carrol’s voice and the lyrics it conveys are always intelligent and at certain moments, genius.
However, the album is not without it’s problems. Musically, the album suffers from sounding repetitive. The endless variations of upbeat chord progressions over root note bass lines can grate on the listener after an extended listens. Going forwards, the group should certainly look at diversifying they’re sound a good bit.
The critical problem with this album and Shrug Life is undoubtedly its reliance on irony as a means to express lyrical ideas. While irony can be enjoyable in small doses, it never really offers anything genuine or substantial in its place.
The album suffers immensely from ridiculing the trappings of everyday life while never suggesting a better alternative. Irony is not a philosophy and shouldn’t be treated as one. An artist like Mac DeMarco may use it continually, but without the open vulnerability in material such as Another Heart and My Old Man his music would lack any real depth or human connection.
Shrug life are an interesting band and ¯\_(?)_/¯ is definitely an album worth checking out. Unfortunately, its true potential is impaired by the lack of emotional expression throughout the album. It’d be fantastic to hear what singer and lyricist Danny Carroll pens when and if he decides to address the things that make his life worth living.