All photos by Cara Robbins
Jehnny Beth has been thinking about the Devil.
“He's there, when you're feeling that feeling of writing a song,“ the Savages lead singer says of the influences behind the band’s latest album.
She references “The Hour of the Devil,” a short story by the Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa, in which evil incarnate tempts its poet heroine not with earthly indulgences, but with the danger of pursuing inspiration.
“Whatever is desired and cannot be obtained, whatever is dreamt because it cannot exist—in this is my kingdom null,” he says. “Is it not true that we are free in the dream?”
“I very much like this idea, that inspiration is the danger,” says Beth, whose second album with Savages, Adore Life, is out now on Matador. “It’s like it’s forbidden,” she says, “because it’s calling on your dark side, your mean side.”
To Pessoa, the Devil is the compulsion to write, the compulsion to be with someone. He is pained and existentially broken, never to know the conclusiveness of mortality. If Savages embody old school rock 'n' roll danger, their ideals are even rawer: Like Pessoa's poet, Savages don't have sympathy for the Devil—they pity him.
“I think inspiration, love, and all of these callings, these aspirations, they are showing you what person you're supposed to become,” Beth says. “That's revolutionary in itself. I think that's definitely not what you're supposed to do.”
Adore Life is a record that finds resolution in its hopefulness; it’s a reminder that it takes a lot of guts to accept to be loved.
I meet Savages on a rainy Tuesday at the Silver Lake outpost of Matador parent company Beggar’s Group, an elegant craftsman home that serves as lodging-cum-office space for when artists come to town.
Beth emerges from behind a table of takeout boxes and newspaper clippings immaculately styled in a leather motorcycle jacket, tight black jeans, and slicked back hair. Thick silver rings—the same that adorn her fist on the cover of Adore Life—punctuate her handshake.
Behind her, in the living room, her bandmates—guitarist Gemma Thompson, bassist Ayşe Hassan, and drummer Fay Milton—languish on a couch, each sporting her own take on the band’s uniform of black on black. Outside, a gray downpour makes it feel like the band’s London home.
Beth hunches and hugs her shoulders, shivering, and divulging for just a moment the slight frame that belies her otherwise intimidating presence.
The band is in town to play “Adore Life” and “The Answer” on Jimmy Kimmel Live, amidst tour rehearsals and back-to-back press. They’re weary but perfectly polite, a little giddy, even, as they mug for our photographer, laughing and quoting Zoolander as they knock out poses like pros.
But that efficiency is also a reminder that to Savages, the obligations of the promotional cycle are just that. Left to their own devices, they talk about writers like Pessoa, and cult Danish punk, and the nature of collaboration; you get the sense they’d always rather be off somewhere translating these conversations into the arresting music that got them here.
Given the turbulent politicizing the British four-piece offered on their ruthless, Mercury Prize-winning debut Silence Yourself and the rough-hewn catharsis of their feedback-drenched live sets, there’s something a little disorienting about the fact that Savages’ newest record, Adore Life, is almost entirely an album of… love songs?
“I think, in some ways, being in love is revolutionary in this world, in this time now,” Beth says, leaning across the table of the conference room where she, Thompson, and I slip away for our interview. “I think most of the record is about feeling inspired...In a way that's not what society wants you to do, ‘cause it takes you away from what people are supposed to do in this world, like have a job, make money, make a family, make all these things.”
True, Adore Life does not sound like a record about love. It’s dark, 39 minutes of uncaged post punk and noise in the tradition of Swans, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and Bauhaus, with walls of feedback and dissonance cut by Thompson’s sinister guitar lines and Beth’s howl. Its pacing is stilted, at times almost frustratingly so. It’s aggressive. It’s confrontational. It’s ugly. It’s all of the things that love is not, at least according to the pop narratives that define it.
What’s profound about Adore Life is not its exploration of this basic pursuit—the desire to love, and be loved—but that it’s radically more honest than the safe, familiar dichotomy that we, and women in particular, are presented with in music: The high of crushes, romance, and the epiphany of mutual affection, versus the low of rejection, despair, and heartbreak.
Savages reclaim love’s gray areas—the obsessiveness, the self-loathing, the sexual appetite—from the corners of shame and isolation to which they are often relegated. The band brings a grace to the honesty of love and life, and their sound reflects this with unflinching ferocity.
"When I take a man at my command, my love will stand the test of time," Beth sings on closer “Mechanics.” There’s an undercurrent of strength on Adore Life, and the music throws it like a gauntlet.
On six-minute centerpiece “Adore,” the band offers a rumination on inspiration that hurls itself into the weight of Hassan’s basslines and Milton’s drumming.
“Is it human to ask for more? / Is it human to adore life?” Beth asks, before the song climaxes into one of the album’s rare shifts from minor to major chord progressions.
“Maybe I will die maybe tomorrow, so I need to say / I adore life,” she declares atop nearly five seconds of silence. It’s a moment of triumph and clarity, an uplifting stylistic departure from the rest of the album that also embodies the message around which Adore Life’s emotional anarchy calibrates itself: Love is not weakness.
Love is messier than that. It’s fickle and complex and contradictory. It’s the lies you tell your family about the parts of yourself you can’t change. It’s the way you notice a breeze in the room more than his hands touching you. It’s the psychological turmoil of sleeping with someone new. It’s the wondering if you did it because you love them, or because you were bored. It’s the desire for them to stick their fingers down your throat. And it’s the decision to make an album about it.
A record about love is hardly what Savages had set out to make upon returning the studio after touring behind Silence Yourself. Their original intent, Beth explains, was to make “the loudest songs ever.” But after a fruitless two month recording stint in a confined north London studio, the quartet scrapped most of what they had and relocated to New York last January for a three week slate of shows workshopping new material across several venues.
“We were lugging the gear through blizzards and stuff,” Thompson recalls. The group recorded each of their nine shows, and when not onstage, spent the bulk of their time rehearsing and picking apart the minutiae of their performances.
“We would have found it impossible to have gone into a studio with those songs and record with them as they were,” Thompson says. “Because it's only when live that you take risks that you wouldn't do without that adrenaline. It's a time when nothing else matters, so you kind of lay yourself bare, I guess. And just to be able to trust each other in that same experience is important...the other three depending on you as that unit onstage right there and then.”
Whether amongst bandmates, an audience, or a lover, that’s what trust is—succumbing to the fear of revealing yourself. It’s the idea of doing something that you’re not certain will not fail, of ceding control of a part of yourself to someone else, in hopes it will amount to something larger. Doing so would inspire Savages to collaborate with everyone from choreographer Nicholas Huchard on a Paris performance to Julian Casablancas on a Sort Sol cover, and eventually to find those same themes viable in their songwriting.
But it would it would take a little more convincing for Beth, who trained in theater and opera in France before relocating to London with her partner, longtime Savages producer Nicolas Congé. She says she considered her own writings about love too frivolous for a project until now devoted to headier themes like justice and political action. It was just the risk the band needed.
“I was saying to the girls, how are we gonna do this? Like, do I need to rewrite a lot of things, or are we gonna be able to make it a Savages thing?” she says, laughing.
Therein lays the temptation, Pessoa’s devil on her shoulder: The fear of abandoning what you should do, and the danger of ceding control to that which seizes you.
“[It] was an interesting question to have. But it felt more vulnerable. It was trusting something that you didn't decide. And it was just naturally happening," Beth says. "And you can't really decide everything. So that's scary.”
If Silence Yourself rose from anger and a fight for autonomy—stemming from clashes with the band’s early management—Adore Life thrives on the band’s reinforced chemistry. Together they sheperd tracks like “Surrender” and “Evil” away from post-punk revival tropes and into unexpected turns. They imbue songs like “Mechanics” and “T.I.W.Y.G” with the illusion of barely maintained control, when that’s in fact what gives them their power. They channel the intimacy of learning to trust into the stance that is “Adore.”
Ultimately, however, what Adore Life offers is more intangible, a visceral satisfaction that inhabits the space between the incisiveness of its songwriting and the punch of chord progressions. It feels relentlessly and unapologetically tremendous, in the weightiest sense of the word. What Savages accomplish and reveal through a more deeply forged connection as band members demands that you, as a listener, also connect to it on a deeper level. As a result, Adore Life is an entirely intuitive experience: Not only is it challenging to articulate, but it often feels inadequate to do so. You can say the same for love, and maybe that’s the point.
“When you start bringing up things like love, it opens up other ideas, like failure,” Thompson says. “Suddenly it wasn't this sugar-coated love, it was losing things, it was risk. It’s losing everything to pursue something that means more than anything. And suddenly we can see each of ourselves in that as well."
Andrea Domanick is the West Coast Editor of Noisey. Follow her on Twitter.