The sea is beautiful and it can kill you; a person might hurt you very badly and you can still miss them; love is responsible for the best feelings it is possible to experience as a human being, as well as the very worst.
Basically, very few things are actually black and white. Most of life is multi-dimensional, sometimes in ways it’s hard to put into words – and at a time when so many speak with such certainty, such frequently unearned authority, it can be reassuring to be reminded that most of the time, there is no easy answer. Supplying this memo, packaged up in 11 tracks of queasy indie-pop, is the great achievement of Every Bad, the second record by Porridge Radio.
Porridge Radio is the brainchild of Dana Margolin, who started the band in 2015 after working on songs and learning guitar alone in her room in Brighton. With the lineup completed by drummer Sam, bassist Maddie, and keyboardist Georgie, the band became a familiar fixture on the UK’s DIY circuit, as they threw themselves into all the shit you do when you’re driven pretty much solely by a flaming desire to play in a band – doing shows with your mates, sleeping in cars, recording in sheds.
Though for the release of Every Bad, the band signed to indie label Secretly Canadian, those essential origins – making music for fun, making music to figure stuff out – have remained tangible. Every Bad feels like both the culmination of a learning process, and the beginning of one. The music and sparkling production – violin! Auto-Tune! Synths so glistening you can see your reflection in them! – mark the band’s most accomplished and polished feat yet (their last record, the lo-fi Rice, Pasta and Other Fillers came out in 2016), while the lyrics wriggle with life, unfurling new meanings on new meanings depending on how you happen to be feeling when you hear them.
Margolin’s knack for expressing ambivalence is finely tuned, and it’s mostly evident through her abilities as a vocalist and songwriter, the soft hand of her words stuffed into the itchy glove of her voice. On more than one track, she sings and shouts one-line mantras that change shape from one utterance to the next. “Everything’s fine” on “Circling” feels like an anxious attempt at self-soothing and glassy-eyed acceptance; the “Thank you for leaving me / Thank you for making me happy” refrain on the opener “Born Confused” packs all the feelings in at once, as Margolin’s tone shifts from resignation to high-strung panic, skidding through the stages of grief and loss like a go on the dodgems.
It’s possible that the emotional rawness of Every Bad could start to feel a bit too weighty were it not balanced out by something else, but luckily Porridge Radio are also adept in the hallowed art of Having a Laugh. They let loose on “Don’t Ask Me Twice” with a combination of snotty, Garbage-y, Cardigans-y backing vocals and good, old-fashioned pop-punk drum-battering, and 2019 single “Give/Take” takes their signature complexity and sets it against a bouncy bassline, as Margolin – firmly in the driving seat on this one – wryly smirks, “I always get what I need.”
Margolin has spoken in the past about her reverence for artists like Charli XCX and members of PC Music, and, undeniably, there’s a poppiness to what Porridge Radio do on Every Bad, bringing light to the shade of their more agonised moments. “Pop Song” sees Margolin sing “I’m ugly deep inside” against a shiny guitar tone that recalls 80s radio, which is also a point of reference for the Simple Minds–esque drum machine sound of the final track, “Homecoming Song.” It’s touches like this which point to the ambition of Porridge Radio’s project, and to the possibilities of its future, as they very effortlessly pair classic sounds with their thoroughly contemporary sense of anguished, information-overloaded, emotionally thorny ennui.
The record ends with another of Margolin’s repeated lines, this time: “There’s nothing inside.” It’s simple and well-placed: having navigated her complex terrain of heartbreak, power, depression and abjection over the ten songs previous, it’s no wonder that the end of the record is a declaration of having purged it all. Because they do not shy away from reckoning with big feelings, a word often associated with Porridge Radio is ‘catharsis’ – and the album’s biggest moment of release is saved for the end, as the phrase’s fervour builds and builds. “There’s nothing inside”: over and over, cresting like a wave, towards, finally, a moment’s peace, as Margolin says it alone, barely accompanied, cleansed now.
Albums that feel like albums – a journey from one place to another – grow more and more uncommon these days, though I’ve always favoured those which take you somewhere unique. Every Bad and its open-top bus tour of Margolin’s psyche and emotions, veering left and right at both her whim and the listener’s own interpretation, does so with gusto. It is an album for our strange times which looks inward, and extends a hand out. “It’s alright if you don’t know,” say Porridge Radio, “because neither do we.” How rare that is, and how generous.