White Lies are, for those unaware, a post-punk band who formed in London in 2007. Prior to their debut album, To Lose My Life…, the band were lauded and tipped for big things – the BBC included them in the Sound of 2009 list and it seemed like we had found a new sensation. Their debut contained some promising moments but only received a smattering of positive reviews. There was a lot of hype and attention surrounding their introduction so maybe it was inevitable the finished results could not meet what people had in their heads. In any case, the band grew and, by 2013’s Big TV, were adding new melodic sensibilities into their palette. Critics noted how White Lies combined the urgent sound of their debut with the conceptual ambitions of 2011’s Ritual. Although there were a lot of 1980s influences on Big TV, it was an album based in the present and saw new appreciation come the band’s way. 2016’s Friends, like the debut, got some positive feedback but a lot of reviewers were dismissive and felt the band had not progressed sufficiently. The band moved to BGM for Friends (they were with Fiction before) and there was this period of transition.
In many ways, White Lies were safely returning to their debut and fearful of putting any new steps forward. It is important to develop and evolve as a group but retain a core element. It has been three years since the last album and their fifth suffers a problem: the fact it is called Five is simplistic, overdone (other artists have done the same thing) and shows a lack of imagination, before a song has even been heard!
Those expecting creative revolution and a change of course for White Lies will be sorely disappointed by their imagination-lite Five. The West London trio claims to have scaled new creative heights and, after a decade as a band, this is them moving into a new era. White Lies wrote and recorded on both sides of the Atlantic and excitedly announced this evolution to their fans. If you ignore the rather weird and indecipherable album cover, the music distracts you. ‘Time to Give’ opens with punctuated and repeated synth notes and the trademark baritone vocal comes to play. The track definitely makes you think of the 1980s and, like previous records, White Lies keep that balance of modern and classic. Unlike previous efforts, Five’s opening track has a warmth and sense of originality that shows they have been working hard on a new direction. Whilst the opening salvo is fresh and ambitious, the fact it runs for over seven minutes does take momentum away and one does lose interest towards the end – putting a song like ‘Never Alone’ at the top would have been a wiser choice. (The song is much more immediate and does not stay past the point of genuine interest). The lyrics are intriguing and each listener will have their own impressions. If the lyrics are oblique and unclear, the music is direct and punchy. The biggest problem is that it is too long and could have been trimmed a lot to create a more epic impression.
Things do start to take an all-too-familiar turn past the second track. ‘Finish Line’ is not an especially memorable song and does not really get out of second gear. The lyrics have interesting moments but you never feel invested in the song. The composition is the weakest element and never provides a sense of momentum, story or memorability – it is a track that could have been pushed towards the end without much problem. A few chunkier riffs suggest something thrilling but the song sort of whimpers away. ‘Kick Me’ is a more interesting compositional prospect but, again, White Lies are too stuck in the 1980s. Depeche Mode is a very obvious source of influence and, although the main album reference is 1990’s Violator, it does not show the band moving too much outside their comfort (time)zone.
By the time ‘Tokyo’ arrives, it is clear the promise regarding a new phase was a bit of an overstatement (one can easily match the sounds on Five with the rest of their catalogue). The track has a catchy chorus and it definitely gets into the bloodstream. Maybe it’s disposable but ‘Tokyo’ is, actually, one of the stronger cuts on Five and provides a bit of relief on what is a slightly saggy and underwhelming middle section. ‘Jo?’ is the shortest track on the album and, again, not one you will come back to again and again. One feels like they have heard similar songs done better and, whilst there is another big and rousing chorus, you will struggle to remember the song after it has finished. It sounds like I am being harsh on the band but, given it has been three years since their last album, one might have hoped there would be more progress and nuance. ‘Denial’ is actually a nice song and a sign of where the rest of the album should have headed. A more restrained performance proves White Lies are not as formulaic as all that. There is real depth in the song and whilst the lyrics are not spectacular – a drawback for the band – the ensemble is pleasing and the number definitely sticks. The band does bring the volume up but the results are more enjoyable than earlier cuts. The track never seems too heavy and the chorus is one of the best they have created in a while – a standout from Five for sure!
‘Believe It’, again, is a nice song and one that sees White Lies at least trying new things in the odd moment. The synths are more squelchy and interesting and, although they are still too beholden to their earliest albums, you can detect a few new additions into their set. The song has another bouncy and compelling chorus and it is another solid enough offering. ‘Fire and Wings’ closes things and would have made an interesting opener as a complex song that is shorter but leaves more of an impression. Darker lyrics lead one to believe Five will end on a sour note but one cannot easily predict the swansong. Again, Depeche Mode is clearly in their mind and one half-expects ‘Personal Jesus’ to come out at certain points! White Lies avoid any easy comparisons by cranking up the tension and offering their biggest explosion yet. The guitars are gnarly and the synths are exceptional. They left it until the last track but the band finally have produced something that matches the promises they made regarding a new and bigger sound. Although they cannot totally escape their old dynamic; the fact they go out with such a bang offers hope that a sixth album – if that is a possibility – will be a more interesting and evolved affair.
Anyone expecting big changes from White Lies will be pretty disappointed. Another three-year gap means they had to produce something exceptional to keep critics happy and recruit new listeners. Five might comfort their dedicated fans but it will not bring new followers in. Too many of the songs are lightweight and similar to what White Lies were doing years ago. The fact, too, the sequencing is not great means we get a half-forgettable opener and most of the best moments come right near the end. There are too many inferior numbers to recommend the album and, despite a few gems in the pack, it is hard to justify that long wait since their last record. One of the criticisms regarding Friends was the lack of progress and moving on. Five is a bolder record but it is still a case of the band sticking with what they know best and not taking enough chances. In a busy scene and packed market, White Lies’ sound struggles to rise above the fray. It is a shame, because when they are really in their stride – such as ‘Tokyo’ (for the most part) and ‘Fire and Wings’ – you wonder whether they missed an opportunity. Five is not a bad album but it is not one you will be talking about after listening and, for a band who have been around for a decade, you would hope they’d offer us something more.
FIVE BY WHITE LIES IS AVAILABLE NOW.